People generally realize and accept that apps track your smartphone’s location, a trade-off that delivers benefits like identifying restaurants near you, hailing you a rideshare vehicle, or finding profiles of attractive singles nearby. But people may not realize that the app companies don’t just keep this data for themselves; they sell it, and each app on your phone could be profiting your precise, nonstop location data to dozens of different companies you’ve never heard of.
A startling New York Times exposé published today details the degree to which popular apps don’t just track your location, but also sell it to dozens of third-party tech companies. “Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies,” the Times says of the worst offender they found.
According to the Times’ analysis, some of these apps update and store your latest location as many as 14,000 times per day. Think of how many apps you’ve downloaded, multiply that by 40 other companies that could be buying the 14,000 pinpoints of your exact location every day, and consider the magnitude of the $21 billion location-targeted marketing industry.
In some cases, these location data buyers do not sound the most ethical companies. “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,” the Times reports.
Most apps claim they “anonymize” the data before selling it, meaning your name, phone number, or home address are not included in what’s sold. But the paper found that volume of location data makes it exceedingly obvious where you sleep, work, or spend your free time. And any employee could access this data and cross-check it with public records to find who you are and track you.
“Location information can reveal some of the most intimate details of a person’s life — whether you’ve visited a psychiatrist, whether you went to an A.A. meeting, who you might date,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden tells the Times, explaining why he’s proposed laws to limit this data collection. “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.”
Tech firms would argue that you could have read the entire confusing Terms of Service before agreeing and using the app. But even a full reading of the terms can be misleading. In the case of the Weather Channel app, the terms said tracking your location would be used for “personalized local weather data, alerts, and forecasts,” without noting they were selling it. (The app updated their Terms of Service after being contacted by the Times.)
Location tracking of smartphone apps is probably here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. To that end, Lifehacker has a handy guide to how to manage location tracking on iOS and Android, including turning off location tracking, ways to stop the tracking when you’re not using the app, and deleting your location history. And, one of your safest moves to just delete apps that you don’t use anymore.