How Phone Apps are Selling Your Location Data

Smartphones may have made our lives easier, but they also act as devices to collect data for marketers.

You may have noticed that you have been receiving more push notifications or ads alerting you of a nearby restaurant or store. That’s because these brands have access to your location-based data and are using automation marketing platforms to reach you.

But, these push notifications aren’t the only reason why the collection of your location data is concerning.

When users allow an app to see their location, they could also be potentially authorizing the app to sell this location-based data.

$16 billion was spent in 2017 on location-targeted ads, which was 40% of all mobile ad spending, according to the research firm BIA/Kelsey.

Collecting this data may be extremely valuable to marketers, but to the consumer it’s extremely invasive.

“The data required to serve you any single ad might pass through many companies’ systems in milliseconds—from databroker to ad marketplace to an agency’s custom system. In part, this is just how online advertising works, where massive marketplaces hold continuing high-speed auctions for ad space,” writes the Wall Street Journal. “But the fragmentation also is because of a very real fear of the public backlash and legal liability that might occur if there were a breach. Imagine the Equifax breach, except instead of your Social Security number, it’s everywhere you’ve been, including your home, your workplace and your children’s schools.”

You would think that not allowing apps to collect location-based data would mean you wouldn’t be tracked, but cell towers collect this information too.

Android devices, for example, are being tracked even when location services are disabled.

“Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers — even when location services are disabled — and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy. Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice … By the end of November 2017, Google said, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google…” writes Quartz.

Even having your Wi-Fi on leaves you vulnerable to tracking.

“Another way you can be tracked without your knowing it is through any open Wi-Fi hotspot you might pass. If your phone’s Wi-Fi is on, you’re constantly broadcasting a unique address and a history of past Wi-Fi connections. Retailers sometimes use these addresses to identify repeat customers, and they can also use them to track you as you go from one of their stores to another,” writes WSJ.

GroundTrush, a location advertising company, has built an empire on selling location data with its weather app WeatherBug. This app requires the user to share their location and this information is then being resold. WeatherBug is also integrated into other apps where this data is also being collected. A whopping 70 million people in the U.S. are being tracked by this company.

Another location data company, Unacast announced a $17.5 million Series B round last month. The start-up is aiming to provide its clients with comprehensive location data on consumers.

“There are two companies out there that collect a huge amount of location data — and that is Google and Facebook,” said Thomas Walle, founder and CEO of Unacast to Tech Crunch.  “They have their proprietary location data sets. However they never, ever sell that data. That is theirs. So, for the rest of the industry or multiple industries that are looking to understand where people move around, where they live, where they work, where they shop, where they dine and how they commute, they need to get access to this data from another party in a structured and suitable manner. And that is the company that Unacast is striking to become.”

Smartphones aren’t the only devices being tracked by apps and location advertising companies either. Telenav Inc. is developing an in-car advertising software that would feature advertisements based on the driver’s location data being collected by the car companies.

Auto executive are claiming this could also help them deliver a better service and driving experience, but it also appears to be merely a move to build a database of consumer preferences that could then be sold to other vendors.

“Carmakers recognize they’re fighting a war over customer data,” said Roger Lanctot, consultant for Strategy Analytics to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Your driving behavior, location, has monetary value, not unlike your search activity.”

Author’s note: This is terrifying. This also probably means the government is purchasing this data and/or collecting it too.

Editor’s note: This means you have no privacy, you are under constant surveillance. You might think that commercial companies don’t really have any reason to do you harm. But if you are talented enough to make a difference politically, or have technical talent of value to someone else, or even if you are cheating on your wife and don’t want to get caught, you can be had. Others have power over you.

About Kerry Lear

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