The New York Times published the investigation on Thursday, using a leaked dataset from one of the many location data companies that collect data from your favorite mobile apps, and the results are unsettling. The investigation, part of the Times Privacy Project series, looked at data of more than 50 billion location “pings” from the phones of more than 12 million Americans from 2016-2017.
“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. 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,” the article reads.
According to the Times, weather, local news, and deal saver apps, along with popular software like Netflix are all used to share your location.
“Many apps that use your location, like weather services, work perfectly well without your precise location — but collecting your location feeds a lucrative secondary business of analyzing, licensing, and transferring that information to third parties,” the Times wrote.
In theory, the location data could be used to keep an eye on employees, stalk celebrities, find out if your spouse is cheating on you, or be sold to other companies to target specific ads to you.
The location data information collected by these types of apps is legal to collect and sell since there is no federal privacy law, which is a cause for concern in and of itself. The companies reportedly only share this type of sensitive data with “vetted partners.”
Stuart Thompson, one of the New York Times journalists who wrote the piece, spoke with Digital Trends Live on Thursday about the findings and the legality of collecting geolocation data.
“This piece is arguing for federal laws and Congress to look into this issue,” he said. “You can’t really blame [the companies] because they aren’t violating any laws, because the laws don’t exist.”
By tracking location data information, one could identify a person pretty quickly, in some cases, less than 30 seconds according to Thompson. For example, your commute from your home to work is unique to you and your smartphone that travels with you.
“Really precise, longitudinal geolocation information is absolutely impossible to anonymize,” Paul Ohm, a law professor and privacy researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, told the Times. “DNA is probably the only thing that’s harder to anonymize than precise geolocation information.”
The article goes on to name some of the companies in the location data sphere, calling out such names as Foursquare, Factual, Unacast, Teemo, and many more.
“There are dozens of companies profiting off such data daily across the world — by collecting it directly from smartphones, creating new technology to better capture the data or creating audience profiles for targeted advertising,” the article said.
We already know that with progress in technology comes more progress in surveillance, but the sheer scale of this data is dizzying. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself by turning off location services on individual apps, but that might mean giving up key features, like Google Maps’ ability to detect where to go when looking for directions.
Thompson told Digital Trends has changed his smartphone habits since reporting on the data set.
“I’m sort of a nut now maybe but I turn off my locations at all times and I’m ruthless about talking to people to make sure they review their apps,” he said. “People just don’t know—they think they do, but they don’t.”
In the coming days, the Times Privacy Project will expand on how this data set has implications on national security and how tracking people’s locations could affect protestors and democracy itself.