The Industry Built Upon Analyzing, Selling Your Location Data

Location data has become big business. According to recent research from The New York Times, at least 75 companies receive reams of precise, anonymous location data from apps with enabled location services. Some of these companies state they track up to 200 million mobile devices, to collect such data, which they sell, use or analyze for customers such as advertisers, retail companies and financial outlets including hedge funds. The location-targeted advertising industry is valued at $21 billion this year.

NYT reports that location-based data captures users’ travels in “startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.” Among those gathering and selling such data is IBM, which bought the Weather Channel’s app. Foursquare is another, having transformed itself from a social network to a location marketing company.

Goldman Sachs and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel have invested in the sector. But NYT found that, although many location companies say the data is “fair game” if a user enables location services, “the explanations people see when prompted to give permission are often incomplete or misleading.” An app might say, for example, that, “granting access to their location will help them get traffic information, but not mention that the data will be shared and sold.”

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) noted that, “location information can reveal some of the most intimate details of a person’s life,” adding that, “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.” What started out as a way to “customize apps and target ads for nearby businesses … has morphed into a data collection and analysis machine,” used by financial firms, healthcare facilities and even “campaigns for personal injury lawyers targeting people anonymously in emergency rooms.”

MightySignal reports that, “more than 1,000 popular apps contain location-sharing code from such companies,” with Google’s Android ecosystem having about 1,200 such apps compared to about 200 Apple iOS offerings. The North Carolina-based Reveal Mobile has location-gathering code in more than 500 apps.

NYT tested 20 apps “flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data,” and found that 17 of them “sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses.” On iOS, WeatherBug, owned by GroundTruth, sent precise location data to 40 companies.

How protected is the data? According to Serge Egelman, a computer security/privacy researcher affiliated with University of California, Berkeley, not much. “There are really no consequences other than bad press that gets forgotten about,” he said. But some app developers say that hacking would “require so much effort that hackers wouldn’t bother.”

Apple and Google have “both have taken steps to limit location data collection,” but the data collection continues.

For those interested in knowing if location data companies are tracking your phone, the “best bet is to check your device to see which apps have permission to get your location in the first place.” Elsewhere, NYT describes how to dig deeper into Location Services settings – and how to disable it altogether. Warning: if you do so, you might not be able to accomplish certain tasks, such as “finding yourself on a map.”

Related:
Facebook Filed a Patent to Calculate Your Future Location, BuzzFeed News, 12/10/18