How is location data used?
The newspaper reviewed four months’ worth of data from a single user from upstate New York. According to the data, the user’s location was recorded 8,600 times, or about once every 21 minutes. Such a collection of location data suggests these apps know everything about the user’s whereabouts.
Even though the location data is anonymous and not linked to any name or phone number, the NYT explains that users’ daily routines, like the places they visit, could be used to guess their identity.
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In some instances, the NYT was able to track people within just a few yards of their current locations. The study also found that companies had access to location data from homes, hospitals, shops and schools. For example, one ad campaign showed ads for personal injury lawyers to people in emergency rooms.
In addition to advertising, such data can prove valuable for other reasons. For example, a large amount of such data can be used to influence political opinions. This is just one example; there could be many more ways companies could use this data to manipulate the masses.
“These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior,” the newspaper said.
Locating-tracking apps can scare you
To come up with the findings on the location-tracking apps, the NYT tested 20 apps. It found that 17 of them sent precise location data to about 70 companies. For instance, the popular iOS app WeatherBug sent data to about 40 companies. Of the 17 location-tracking apps, only four (three on iOS and one on Android) notified users that their data could be used for advertising. One app suggested the data could be used to analyze industry trends.
This means users are being tracked even if they have not consented to it. The apps also may lead users to believe that the data collection is for innocuous purposes. For example, the Weather Channel app (IBM owns the Weather Channel) analyzed user data for hedge funds, but their location prompt only says users will receive “personalized local weather data, alerts, and forecasts.”
Citing mobile analysis firm MightySignal, the report adds that more than 100 apps use specific location-tracking software. Such a practice is more rampant on Android. Further, the report notes that about 75 companies receive location data on at least 200 million people in the U.S. It also notes that advertising revenue based on users’ locations will reach about $21 billion this year.
The apps tested by the NYT include the SnipSnap Coupon app, Bear: Free Animal Games for Kids, Masha, the Weather Channel app, theScore, Bus, Tube Map: London Underground, GasBuddy, DC Metro and Perfect365.
What’s the solution?
It must be noted that there are no laws restricting the collection and use of this type of location data. In other words, it is legal for such apps to sell user location data for profit. However, the lack of uniformity in the laws means user privacy is at risk, and Congress is not unaware of this.
“It’s not right to have consumers kept in the dark about how their data is sold and shared and then leave them unable to do anything about it,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) told the NYT.
Until there are adequate laws to protect users from such location-tracking apps, it is important that users themselves take responsibility to protect themselves. Although enabling location sharing makes apps more useful, users must periodically review the apps they have previously granted permission to and decide if they should continue to provide permission to them or not.
To review location settings on iOS, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Service. From here, you can change the settings of each app to allow location sharing always, never, or only when using the app. On Android, permissions can be reviewed via Settings > Security & Location > Locations and then by checking app-level permissions.