In August, one of the largest information and data companies in the world, Google, was pulled up for tracking users’ location even when location services are turned off. Following the revelation, Google itself admitted to tracking users’ location in order to “improve the Google experience”. While it is a well known fact that location data collected from smartphones is used to target ads at people, a New York Times report has opened up a can of worms for a number of apps collecting and selling location data of users, potentially revealing intimate secrets about them. Thanks to advancements in location tracking technology, NYT reports that companies in the location services business collect data about the precise movements of users through apps disguised in the garb of providing Local News and Weather information.
The Times’ research revealed that “At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information” in the US. The report goes on to state that many of these companies claimed to track almost half of all mobile devices in the United States.
The report further found that even though this tracking data is not sold with the purpose of revealing a user's identity, studying the location information can easily lead one to pinpoint the identity of the user. The publication was able to successfully identify a user, solely based on her movements throughout the day.
NYT studied 20 apps which were flagged off by researchers from California-based AppCensus, a collaboration of international researchers who look into providing app users transparency around the way their personal information is used by apps. Findings of the study highlighted 17 apps that sent exact latitude and longitude of users to about 70 businesses. The iOS Weather Bug app was called out in the report for selling precise location data to 40 companies.
Details of the location data collected by apps can even reveal travel details of a person accurate to a few yards and as per the report, this data is collected and updated more than 14,000 times a day sometimes. What’s more alarming is that sales of location-targeted advertising is estimated to reach $21 billion this year and companies like IBM also have a foot in the industry thanks to its purchase of the Weather Channel’s app. As per the report, other notable investors in location start-ups include Goldman Sachs and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel.
Another worrisome statistic pointed out in the report suggests that upwards of 1,000 popular apps contain location-sharing code from companies in the business of selling location data. An estimated 1200 Android apps on Google’s Play Store and 200 apps on Apple’s iOS Store were found to have similar code.