It’s strange to imagine life before modern tracking technology. Tracking and location data has forever transformed the way we interact and operate, from the GPS systems in our cars to the asset trackers used in shipping, the supply chain, and even the military.
Thanks to our personal smartphones, we can harness this power wherever we go. Using our Androids and iPhones, we can tap into satellite data to help us get around, find local deals, and engage with our surroundings.
As it turns out, though, the phones themselves are also tracking devices. And we are the assets being tracked.
Ask any iPhone loyalist and this may be viewed as a selling point. With smartphone tracking, not only can users quickly find their phone if they lose it, but they can also pinpoint where their friends are at a given moment — with their approval, that is.
There’s always more to the story, especially with technology. For all its practicality, smartphone tracking has become another lightning rod of controversy.
What are the risks of smartphone tracking, and how might it be used against us? Because of our “adopt first, ask questions later” approach with this technology — as with so many others — the problem is just now being addressed by the mainstream.
Concerns have grown louder and louder following a December report by The New York Times. In the extensive piece, it was revealed how billions of “location pings” for millions of Americans are being logged in enormous databases by companies around the world. These data points reveal the precise locations of specific smartphones over a period of time, effectively following the trail of their owners.
Any public sharing of this information is punishable by the companies with privileged access to the data sets; anonymous sources chose to share the data at their own risk, due to concerns about how it all might be abused.
“You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book,” writes The Times, as part of its Privacy Project. “They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.”
Personal, private data comes in a variety of forms. This includes our browsing history, our income and job title, and now our whereabouts at any given moment, to name just a few. Every kernel is a commodity in the “information economy,” where businesses of all shapes and sizes use private details to inform marketing strategy and the like. Thousands of companies today are simply out to gather and sell this hot property to those that will find a use for it.
These companies, and those collecting our mobile location data, are not necessarily evil by design. But revelations like those in The Times are rightfully turning heads. Tracking and collecting location data is a “largely unregulated” practice. Whether a person’s location data is sold off for profit or simply locked away for future research, there is a growing sense that our privacy — what’s left of it — is being compromised in the process.
Concerns surrounding this “surveillance capitalism,” as some have called it, go all the way to the top. One glaring example is Apple. The company’s latest smartphone, the iPhone 11, reportedly collects user location data even when the user disables the feature. This underhanded practice sets the standard for other companies that are adding to the ocean of personal information each day.
Even colleges are taking advantage of smartphone tracking, as an advanced form of student surveillance. Are they overstepping bounds, or using technology to improve security and attendance across the student body? Both, it could be argued. But for the average student, the choice might be more obvious.
Perhaps to a lesser extent, there may be benefits to these general location data pools for those willing to offer up their information, when signing up for apps or visiting certain businesses. That so much data has been collected and held onto with varying levels of consent, though, is the larger issue at the moment. Along with the obvious ethical questions, this creates an unprecedented opportunity for hackers and other criminals, should the data wind up in their hands.
Data privacy, or the lack thereof, remains one of the most alarming topics in the news cycle, and a universal talking point across demographics and party lines. As technology evolves and becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, so change the individual implications with regard to personal data protection, not to mention enterprise data security.
The recent California Customer Privacy Act was a major step forward, laying out some rules for how businesses go about collecting private information. But each new story reveals how deep and complex the problems are, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future.
Last summer, CNET offered readers some basic tips for protecting their smartphone location data. We recommend taking a look. When considering a new mobile app, product, or service, we also suggest a thorough inspection of the privacy guidelines and the intended use of tracking data before checking all the boxes.
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