A new Google policy threatens to further squeeze the location-data ad market

Google plans to roll out a policy change later this year that will require developers to go through an approval process before their apps can collect user location data when the app isn’t visible to the user.

The idea, the company said in a blog post, is to clamp down on apps collecting such information unnecessarily and to protect user privacy. It should further squeeze an already rattled location-based ad market, which has been forced — through consumer awareness, regulation and the actions of operating systems — to reduce its reliance on GPS signals to target consumers.

From Aug. 3, all new apps in the Google Play store will need to pass a review process before collecting location data in the background, Google said last week in a blog post. The policy will expand to existing apps by Nov. 3. Google is asking developers to consider factors such as whether users would have an expectation that the app would be collecting their data while it wasn’t open and in use, and whether the app can deliver the same experience without such data. The precise dates could change, Google said.

Location-data vendors tend to work by paying developers to embed their software development kits into their apps. For some apps, location-sharing makes sense to the user — a running tracker or a weather app, for example. But it’s less logical to give over such permission when the app in question is a flashlight or a calculator. Location-data vendors say that they seek consent before collecting location information, but that doesn’t always mean users are fully aware about the types of companies that are consuming their data and what they are doing with it.

New versions of the Android mobile operating system (from Android 10 and beyond) now include a prompt whenever an app is collecting a user’s location information. The user is then given the option to only grant the app permission to access their location when they are using the app. “Over half” of Android 10 users have selected the “while app is in use,” option Google said in the blog post. Android 11 gives users more controls over how their location data is shared.

The changes bring Google more in line with Apple’s stance on location data. Apple has included similar prompts and controls since its iOS 13 update last September.  Location Sciences, a location verification company, said it has seen a 68% drop in background location data being shared since the iOS 13 update, according to CEO Mark Slade. The forthcoming Play Store policy change will likely stifle available GPS data signals further.

“There wasn’t so many checks and balances in the Google Play Store, so you could get away with more if you were an app developer than you would on iOS,” Slade said. The data stifling “will probably apply to the longtail of apps, which contribute a lot of the amount of GPS signals.”

Still, Slade added, despite the reduction in GPS data supply, owing to the recent Android and iOS changes, prices for location data haven’t budged over the last six months. “The market is not behaving like a free market,” he said.

While some media buyers find value in serving ads to people when they are in the vicinity of a physical store, “there’s always been a skepticism about location data and the scale” of it, said Doug Chisholm, CEO of data firm Rippll. “I think some [location] ad networks figured out clever ways of explaining they can get reach and hyper-targeting — which is an oxymoron — but they figured out how to sell that story.”

Ultimately, many advertisers don’t verify the accuracy of the location data they get back from their vendors, said Shailin Dhar, CEO of marketing analytics business Method Media Intelligence. For example, already when there is no ad ID present, some attribution and targeting providers look to other signals such as IP addresses (which often include multiple users and devices,) or the type of device or browser being used to pad out their datasets.

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“Location data isn’t like some magic pill for making your campaign effective,” said Dhar. Yet, marketers aren’t always incentivized to check the data they’re being offered their location-data vendors, not least as it comes with an added cost. “Nobody feels a financial pinch by not verifying — there’s no penalty,” at least not one that is immediately clear, Dhar added.

From a targeting perspective, city-level data is usually sufficient for most campaigns, according to Raman Sidhu, vp of business development at analytics company Beemray, who added that location data tends to be more useful for insights versus targeting.

Coupled with the recent Apple and Google changes, new global privacy regulations have already put some location-data vendors in a tight spot. In 2018, some location-based ad companies, such as GroundTruth and Verve, closed their European operations, citing concerns related to the General Data Protection Regulation. (Verve was sold last month to German investment group MGI, after significantly reducing its overall headcount.)

Also in 2018, French data protection authority CNIL issued warnings to location ad tech vendors Fidzup, Teemo and Vectaury. The CNIL has now closed those investigations, and the companies avoided fines.

“The supply of [location] data in the market was already diminished, was already to some degree questionable in its authenticity, now [advertisers] will be looking elsewhere,” said Beemray’s Sidhu.

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