This morning, a few publications ran with a holiday-themed data study about how families that voted for opposite parties spent less time together on Thanksgiving, especially in areas that saw heavy political advertising. It’s an interesting finding about how partisan the country is becoming, and admirably, the study’s authors tried to get data that would be more accurate than self-reporting through surveys. To do this, they tapped a company called SafeGraph that provided them with 17 trillion location markers for 10 million smartphones.
The data wasn’t just staggering in sheer quantity. It also appears to be extremely granular. Researchers “used this data to identify individuals' home locations, which they defined as the places people were most often located between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m.,” wrote The Washington Post.
The researchers also looked at where people were between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day in order to see if they spent that time at home or traveled, presumably to be with friends or family. “Even better, the cellphone data shows you exactly when those travelers arrived at a Thanksgiving location and when they left,” the Post story says.
To be clear: This means SafeGraph is looking at an individual device and tracking where its owner is going throughout their day. A common defense from companies that creepily collect massive amounts of data is that the data is only analyzed in aggregate; for example, Google’s database BigQuery, which allows organizations to upload big data sets and then query them quickly, promises that all its public data sets are “fully anonymized” and “contain no personally-identifying information.” In multiple press releases from SafeGraph’s partners, the company’s location data is referred to as “anonymized,” but in this case they seem to be interpreting the concept of anonymity quite liberally given the specificity of the data.
Most people probably don’t realize that their Thanksgiving habits could end up being scrutinized by strangers.
The company has written about the importance of data privacy, albeit with an eye toward legal compliance, but its attitude toward data collection is understandably greedy. In a blog post about an industrywide location collecting software kit called OpenLocate, SafeGraph wrote, “OpenLocate is founded on the belief that developers should have complete control over how location data is collected on their users,” emphasis mine. Developers should have complete control? What about the users?
A user can opt out of this kind of tracking by turning off location services or opting out of ad services on an Android or Apple device. But most people probably don’t realize that their Thanksgiving habits could end up being scrutinized by strangers because they downloaded a weather app. It’s a sign of the times that two university researchers could get their hands on 17 trillion location markers for 10 million people, as data collection is ubiquitous and regulatory oversight is meek. Is your data in this study? It would be very difficult to find out.
If SafeGraph had stuck to selling its product to its B2B clients, we might have stayed blissfully unaware, but now we know. At least we got some insight into how Democrats and Republicans are spending their Thanksgivings.