The Growing Industry of Geo-Location Data Is Based on Ignorance and Deception, says New York Times

Wednesday, 12 December 2018 - 1:54PM
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Wednesday, 12 December 2018 - 1:54PM
The Growing Industry of Geo-Location Data Is Based on Ignorance and Deception, says New York Times
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In an in-depth report on geo-location data collectionThe New York Times claims that apps are misleading their users when asking for access to their location, companies are using the data with essentially no oversight, and that the vast majority of users have no idea how their data is being used.

The report comes after a recent scandal involving Google allegedly misleading users about how to 'turn off' their apps' geo-location features, which culminated in formal complaints by privacy organizations in seven different European countries. It also comes in the wake of a highly publicized hearing before Congress in which representatives revealed how little they understand about Google.

In the report, the authors combed through patterns of data collected from 1.2 million unique devices in the New York area and followed up with the companies who were collecting and selling that data. One of the more troubling takeaways was that the supposedly anonymous location data can be attached to a person's identity relatively easily: "...those with access to the raw data - including employees or clients - could still identify a person without consent. They could follow someone they knew, by pinpointing a phone that regularly spent time at that person's home address. Or, working in reverse, they could attach a name to an anonymous dot, by seeing where the device spent nights and using public records to figure out who lived there."

Much of this data doesn't stay in the apps that collect it—it's sold to advertisers, other businesses, or (oftentimes) anyone else the app chooses. There is little to no regulation for how user data can be treated, and the agreements users make to share their data usually don't tell the whole story—according to the Times: "...the explanations people see when prompted to give permission are often incomplete or misleading. An app may tell users that granting access to their location will help them get traffic information, but not mention that the data will be shared and sold. That disclosure is often buried in a vague privacy policy."

In a statement, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said "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. 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."
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