It’s an ugly truth of the modern world that your online activity is central to the advertising businesses of Facebook and Google, but it isn’t just your browsing data that’s fed to digital ad networks for profit—it’s also where you set foot.
A sweeping New York Times investigation into the location-tracking services employed by 20 different widely-used apps paints a picture of granular surveillance in the name of advertising revenue.
Though companies pepper their location-tracking capabilities with disclaimers saying apps only track you when they’re active, the investigation found a more alarming reality: The Timesfound 75 companies that receive startlingly precise location data, down to details like street names. The extent of the so-called “anonymous” tracking is often concealed by unclear language, or buried in the fine print of a byzantine terms and conditions page. The monitoring is so exact, the report claims, that the data could easily reveal someone’s home address with the help of public records.
It’s also widespread. A few of the companies reviewed claim to track upwards of 200 million mobile devices in the United States a year. The data is often extracted 14,000 times a day.
Popular apps like Weather Bug, Gas Buddy and The Weather Channel app are tied up in the practice of selling location data to advertisers. There’s a plethora of others, too, such as TheScore, DC Metro and Bus, the London Underground’s Tube Map and Masha and The Bear—an app for children’s games, the report found. Of the 20 reviewed by the Times, 17 apps shared exact user latitude and longitude signals with about 70 businesses.
The location-monitoring apps slurp seemingly every bit of data at their disposal, the report states. Jails, crime scenes and nuclear power plants aren’t spared. Neither are emergency rooms.
From the report:
“Tell All Digital, a Long Island advertising firm that is a client of a location company, says it runs ad campaigns for personal injury lawyers targeting people anonymously in emergency rooms.”
Of course, the extent of location-tracking in popular apps is far more exhaustive than just the 20 reviewed by the Times. According to the paper, which cited figures from mobile analysis firm MightySignal, over 1,000 apps use specific location-tracking software. It’s more rampant on Android devices, with about 1,200 apps employing the code, whereas those running Apple’s iOS number about 200. It’s big business, with sales in the broader industry garnering $21 billion in 2018, the paper reported.
Though it’s not technically illegal for apps to sell user location data to turn a profit, the practice has still raised alarms in Congress. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) told the paper:
“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.”
That being said, it’s nigh time to think long and hard about the apps you use and whether enabling location data is ever a good call. Otherwise, you might have to opt for a Faraday bag to make your phone untraceable.
Source: The New York Times
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics