An Exploit In Mobile Technology And Advertising Makes Cyberstalking Easier Than Ever

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A new study found that for roughly $1,000, someone can turn online advertising into a cyberstalking tool.

University of Washington researchers found an individual user can purchase online advertisements and target specific phones with those ads. In turn, they can potentially track a person’s daily movements within 25 feet and monitor which apps are in use, or trigger an alert 10 minutes after visiting a specific location.

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That information could be used for something as simple as an advertiser learning where you go for coffee, or in the wrong hands, it could be used by someone to break into someone’s house when they are not there.

To become a target, someone needs a mobile advertising ID specific to a phone. They can get it anytime the owner clicks on a mobile ad or logs on to an unsecured Wi-Fi router.

Frequently resetting the mobile advertisting ID on a smartphone, a feature many smartphones now offer, can help disrupt cyberstalkers plans. Depending on the model and operating system, ad tracking limits can be customized under a phone’s privacy or location services settings.

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The research about the threat will be presented Oct. 30 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Workshop on Privacy in the Electronic Society, according to the university.

“Anyone from a foreign intelligence agent to a jealous spouse can pretty easily sign up with a large internet advertising company and on a fairly modest budget use these ecosystems to track another individual’s behavior,” said lead author Paul Vines, a recent doctoral graduate in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

A press release on the study says the research team was able to track a person’s movements across the city during a morning commute by serving location-based ads to the target’s phone.

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“To be very honest, I was shocked at how effective this was,” said co-author Tadayoshi Kohno, an Allen School professor who has studied security vulnerabilities in products ranging from automobiles to medical devices.