One of the most straightforward ways for an app to track the mobile habits of smartphone owners is to peg the app’s tracking software to each phone’s unique identification number, or UDID.
Missing from this efficient tracking mechanism, though, is the phone owner’s authorization for (or even knowledge of) UDIDs’ use. Functional as they may be for advertisers and data sharing, UDIDs can’t be deleted from phones, and the associated software’s vulnerability to hacking isn’t clear.
Because UDIDs fit into a category of software that operates with no warning or opt-out provision for users, they are potential targets of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Last week, two senior members of the Committee on Energy & Commerce sent a letter to 34 firms that develop apps for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) devices “inquiring about their information collection and use practices.”
Perhaps anticipating that UDID might generate privacy concerns, Apple announced last summer, in a note to developers, that it would begin “deprecating” use of UDID in apps written for iOS 5, the latest version of the company’s operating system for mobile devices. And last week — a bit earlier than most developers expected — two of the 10 teams that screen apps for Apple in fact began rejecting those that access UDIDs, which have been widely used to enhance the effectiveness of mobile ad networks, game networks, and the data provided by analytics services.
In the coming weeks, sources told TechCrunch, four of the 10 vetting teams will be rejecting UDID apps.
A search for substitutes
So the question now is, what will developers use instead of UDID? While it is true they have had months to consider alternatives, developer comments to TechCrunch suggest there isn’t yet an overwhelming favorite, nor is there one that works with the accuracy of UDIDs.
Jim Payne, CEO of mobile ad network MoPub, told the news site that Apple’s decision to nix the sale of any app that can access UDIDs through its iTunes and App Store will have a sobering effect on the software applications industry. “All the performance dollars that are spent on mobile are going to be impacted by this not being there,” he said.
TechCrunch reported that AppFire, for example, is developing an open-source UDID alternative, while OpenFlint is developing a single sign-on system for social game developers that will allow them to track users’ behavior across apps. Forbes also reports that a Seattle startup called HasOffers may have a promising alternative to UDIDs, called “Mobile App Tracking.”
HasOffers says its solution can gather the consumer information app developers and their clients want through “fingerprinting,” a technique that gathers several pieces of anonymous data about a user when an ad is clicked. HasOffers says the information is accurate enough to trace an app back to the user when it is eventually installed.
A HasOffers blog suggests that Mobile App Tracking is market ready. Many other alternatives, however, are under development because no one expected Apple to move up its schedule to reject UDID-able apps.