Location data: More valuable than you think
Are you being tracked?
At this point in the history of the Internet, we’ve probably all realized that staying anonymous online is not easy. So the question should perhaps be: to what extent are you being tracked, and what can you do to avoid it?
Some websites and apps are transparent when it comes to privacy and provide options for controlling our settings. But not all are quite so honest.
One of the key privacy points of mobile data is location data. This information can be quite valuable within certain industries — especially when they have gathered other data relating to a particular user. If customer A has been searching for sports equipment, then maybe they would like to know about a sports store in their immediate vicinity. Surely this is a win-win? Well, not always.
It’s true that, in some cases, location data is essential to the running of a mobile app. Just think of rideshare or delivery apps like Uber or Deliveroo that would be unable to function without knowing where their users are. Usually, users will be alerted to this and asked how they want location data to be used with an option for “only while using this app,” or something similar.
But some apps have not been altogether honest about their tracking. Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons was found to be regularly tracking users when the app was closed. Last year, Meta paid out $37.5 million for tracking 70 million users without permission — but failed to admit responsibility. The same invasions of privacy have been made by several fitness and prayer apps.
So why would companies risk falling foul of privacy regulators that will more than likely catch up with them? This can be explained by the fact that the location data industry is worth an estimated $12 billion. And there is a new type of go-between cashing in on that.
The data broker
According to NPR, your location data is frequently passed from an app to a data broker, who then sells it to companies that can use it for various purposes, usually in advertising. This may sound quite nefarious, but sometimes the mobile apps don’t even know it’s happening.
That’s because apps often use software development kits (SDKs), sets of ready-made code with specific technical functions. These save time for software developers working on an app. But SDKs may contain location-tracking capabilities, which the SDK provider has been paid to insert by a data broker without bringing it to the attention of the user. Some app developers avoid using SDKs altogether as a way of ensuring the privacy of their users is upheld.
Making matters worse, data brokers are not only sharing location data with advertisers — they are also sharing it with law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have purchased location data from a broker.
The privacy users are afforded all too often comes down to the advertising potential.
Apple claims to collect a minimal amount of its customers’ data, and according to Wired, the tech giant has a better record than Facebook and Google. Apple does gather data on you and your activity, though this is usually with permission. Although when Apple allowed its users the option to opt out of being tracked by advertisers, the decision cost the company billions in ad revenue.
But location privacy is not only about marketing.
Secretly tracking the movements of users can have consequences. In 2021 a high-ranking Roman Catholic official was discovered to have been living a secret life of visiting gay bars and using the dating app Grindr. This was revealed by a Catholic news outlet that sourced “commercially available” location data.
In 2020, Vice reported that the U.S. military bought data from a Muslim prayer and Quran app as part of a counterterrorist operation.
Recently, privacy advocates have raised questions over whether Google and Facebook will comply with law enforcement concerning the location of people in the US seeking out-of-state abortions. Google has said it will pause location tracking, and both companies said they would push back requests in order to respect user privacy in these situations.
In other cases, reports suggest that Google complies with around 80% of data requests from law enforcement in the US, with a similar figure for Facebook.
As location data is an expanding industry, the importance of privacy should not be overlooked. So every user needs to be educated in data privacy, up-to-date on best data practices, and constantly aware of what they are signing up for.
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