6 Unsettling Revelations About How Apps Use Your Location Data
12.10.2018

We’re being followed. Hordes of shady individuals and “location firms” know where we go every day and for how long. They’re sneakily acquiring loads of our personal location data and selling it for a profit. Only blockchain can save us…

That sounds like a blatant case of overhyping under-developed technology, but companies have been experimenting with blockchain as a way for people to take back ownership of their personal data. We’ll get into that later, but in the meantime, this is about paying respect to an in-depth report by the New York Times that tracked exactly how we’re being tracked and by whom. Here are some key takeaways that will either make you want to chuck your smartphone out the window or shrug listlessly because you already knew location firms were on your tail.

Apps sharing users’ location data is a common practice.

The Times found that 75 companies get “anonymous” information about smartphone users from their apps. There are likely more. Once these companies compile location data, they turn around and sell it to advertisers and all kinds of other businesses, including hedge funds, so they can make decisions based on potential customers’ movements. Invading our privacy is a growing industry.

These “location firms” get their information from inserting location-tracking code into a number of commonly used apps. The Times found about 1,200 Android apps that include this code and roughly 200 Apple apps.

Being “anonymous” doesn’t actually hide your identity.

If apps on your phone track your movements, and you’re the only person who lives in your building and commutes to your particular place of work, then it’s pretty easy to figure out who you are. The Times was able to do this “easily” for Lisa Magrin, a teacher who lives in upstate New York and leaves her house every morning around 7 a.m. to travel 14 miles to work at a middle school. They could also determine how long she stayed at the places she visited (for instance, Weight Watchers and a doctor’s office).

Her location was recorded once every 21 minutes in the four-month period the Times looked at her data. Sure, companies who purchased her data (along with that of many others) saw her movements attached to a unique, anonymized ID. But figuring out who somebody is from where they live and work isn’t a difficult leap to make.

In the meantime, if you don’t want location firms, retailers, lawyers, and Mark Zuckerberg following you around, buy a low-tech burner phone with cash.

You should probably assume your data is being sold when you “agree” to an app’s terms.

Very few people have the patience to read through an app’s entire terms of service before downloading a weather or route-planning app. (I personally assume I’m handing over my individual freedom and all of my selfies, but I click “agree” anyway.) This is a problem, because the part that says your information will be sold and shared with other companies is either deeply buried in the terms or obscured by obtuse language. These are some purposefully shady techniques we’re dealing with.

Don’t underestimate the number of use cases for location tracking.

You assume that retailers are looking at where you go so they can send a push notification about a sale at nearby store. The number of people who take your daily commute might help a coffee shop determine where to open up their next café. But did you consider the people monitoring your time in a hospital’s emergency department, so an injury attorney can contact you the moment you leave? An advertising firm in Long Island called Tell All Digital facilitates just that with their ad campaigns. Later in the Times article, a map shows a cell phone moving to and from places the New York City mayor was known to have visited. The implication is pretty clear—tracking location can influence not just purchases, but also politics.

The location data apps are sharing is often exact.

The Times looked into 20 apps that were known to have shared users’ location data. Of those, 17 offered businesses exact locations.

All of this is technically okay to do.

“There are really no consequences” for companies that fail to protect users’ data, digital security and privacy researcher Serge Egelman told the Times. Sure, there’s the bad press, but even after Facebook’s massive data betrayal and the pervasive #DeleteFacebook campaign, how many people can say they actually did? Advertisers, injury lawyers, and who knows who else can follow us around remotely with little hassle.

What do to if you’re worried about location tracking…

First, consider the upside. There’s the argument that people “pay” for free apps with their personal data. So yes, you’re getting apps for free, and free is good. Meanwhile, multiple blockchain companies are trying to figure out how to pay people for their personal data in tokens (BREAKER writer Greg Milner is currently worth at least 164.18 LANG). With all the free data companies are getting, they won’t be inclined to want to pay for it—but when more app users figure out they can monetize their data, they won’t want to give away that valuable, personal data for nothing anymore. Companies will have learned the value of our data, won’t be able to operate successfully any longer without it, and boom—we’re all rich.

That’s the long game. In the meantime, if you don’t want location firms, retailers, lawyers, and Mark Zuckerberg following you around, buy a low-tech burner phone with cash. Then take the smartphone you’ve been walking/driving/riding around with for the past three years and attach it to a stray dog. If everything works out, someone will find the dog thanks to your phone’s newly peculiar location information, adopt her, and you can live your life without a bunch of strangers stalking your every move.

If you’re not ready to part with a phone that tracks your step count, you can start by deleting unethical apps or limiting apps’ ability to track your movements in your phone’s settings.