When you carry a smartphone around, you accept a number of risks: the possibility of a pocket dial; the ever-present threat of a telemarketer call; the fact that some app you downloaded and forgot about has been tracking your location down to the geographical coordinates, all day, every day.
According to a New York Times investigation published this morning, there is a robust market for detailed location-tracking data collected via smartphone. You’re likely familiar with the fact that some apps ask you to enable location-tracking in order to function. But after reviewing sample data collected by an unnamed company in 2017, the* Times* discovered that location-tracking is a far more expansive practice than one might expect, fueling an estimated $21-billion dollar industry. You might be giving an app your location to get a more accurate weather forecast, but your data could end up helping a hedge fund analyze consumer behavior.
Of the 17 apps that the Times saw sending precise location data, just three on iOS and one on Android told users in a prompt during the permission process that the information could be used for advertising. Only one app, GasBuddy, which identifies nearby gas stations, indicated that data could also be shared to “analyze industry trends.” More typical was theScore, a sports app: When prompting users to grant access to their location, it said the data would help “recommend local teams and players that are relevant to you.” The app passed precise coordinates to 16 advertising and location companies.
In an ideal world, apps would only ask for a user’s location if it directly informed better service. For navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze, collecting location data makes sense — the more the apps know about how people move, the more accurate they can be when predicting transit times. But for apps like theScore, a sports app referenced by the Times, there’s no reason for them to know your location except to help itself and other companies advertise to you.
This isn’t an isolated problem: so much of the tech world relies on the haphazard collection and dissemination of data. Facebook has become one of the most influential institutions in the world by vacuuming up every bit of information it can and selling it to companies who want to sell you things. As the Times piece demonstrates, even if data collection is a functioning business model for free apps, virtually no one involved, including the businesses, fully understand or are willing to acknowledge its consequences.
When you decide to stop using an app that has sold your location information to other companies, your data is already out in the world and you can’t get it back. It doesn’t really matter how much you scrutinize the privacy policies or pop-up messages. What you get is a transaction in which only one side is fully aware of the terms, and only one side benefits.