Location data, location tracking and sharing explained

Anton P. | January 15, 2021

Location data sharing has proven to be invasive and dangerous. Many companies have the power to keep tabs on our geographic information. 

Of course, mapping services and ride-hailing apps have reasons for tracking location. However, many providers fail to share how they handle location data. 

Evidence from the last decade shows that purchasing location data has never been easier. Users note that unethical location data sharing is not only a digital privacy threat. 

It involves dangers to physical safety in the real world since users have limited control over who has obtained their data.

How location data sharing works 

Users’ geolocation is a variable tracked by various devices and systems. GPS and cell towers know where devices are based on the distance between towers. Mobile phones have built-in features allowing them to store and share device whereabouts. 

  • By default, mobile devices extract location via Global Positioning System (GPS), Bluetooth, or wireless signals (cellular, Wi-Fi). Typically, smartphones supply geolocation data to apps, a feature known as location services. 
  • However, GPS tracking remains active even if users disable location services via phone settings. While apps no longer access geo-data, your OS retrieves it. 

Our research suggests that Gen Zs are the most concerned with location tracking.

Types of location data

The type of location data usually depends on how it gets retrieved: 

  • Bidstream is the location data received via web and mobile ads.
  • Apps can retrieve accurate location data straight from mobile devices.
  • GPS supplies latitude and longitude information collected by hardware on devices.
  • Wi-Fi can reveal location based on the distance between users and networks.
  • Beacons are hardware transmitters that can recognize nearby devices.

When users agree to location sharing

Users also agree to share location data after installing apps (such as Facebook, Google, or Twitter). Smart devices and their respective apps also track users’ physical movements: 

  • They include fitness monitors, smartwatches, IoT devices, smart medical devices, and built-in vehicle communications. 
  • Surprisingly, many smart household gadgets can contain surprising wireless capabilities. Light bulbs, thermostats, cookware, and others can retrieve users’ geolocations. 

Location data sharing may appear as a practical feature. It is critical in apps providing delivery, weather forecast, roadside assistance, or transport services. 

GDPR includes location as one of the components that can identify users. The general idea is that services relying on geolocation gain detailed insights into consumers’ behavior and daily patterns. 

From this standpoint, it is possible to build substantial user profiles. Hence, NSA emphasizes that location data sharing is a problematic phenomenon. Significant control and consumer awareness are necessary to prevent misuse and mitigate risks. 

When location data sharing turns dangerous 

In 2018, a survey by HERE revealed consumer attitudes toward location tracking. 

  • It said that most participants felt like location data sharing was intrusive. 
  • In addition to feeling generally uncomfortable, 77% of people highlighted fears of burglaries, physical harm, and stalkers.
  • However, only 9% of participants reviewed and updated location data sharing settings.
  • Thus, while people admitted feeling uneasy about current tracking practices, they were unwilling to act on them. 

Furthermore, flaws in software can cause unwanted location tracking. For example, a bug in iPhone 11 allowed such monitoring.

Apps that track location when not actively used

In 2016, Uber’s attempts to optimize its pickup and drop-off accuracy triggered instant criticism. Simply put, the company intended to log location even after passengers’ rides ended. 

This decision triggered controversy, forcing users to give Uber full access or none at all. Later, Uber terminated this feature and even moved to provide services without requiring location data sharing. 

Apps that conceal location tracking

According to a Yale Privacy Lab study, over 70% of Android apps exposed users to trackers, logging users’ data without consent. The situation highlighted the necessity of app stores users could trust without worrying about masked third-party code. 

Apps that do not secure personal data properly

A secret-sharing app called Whisper proved how dangerous it might be to expose location data online. The service stored user data on a non-password-protected database accessible from the public web. 

Hence, it became possible to associate shared intimate details with natural people. While records did not include names, researchers found the location coordinates of the users’ last submitted posts. Many of them pinpointed offices, residential areas, or educational institutions. 

Apps selling location data to third parties

At this stage of digital marketing, sharing location-based data with advertisers is relatively common. However, secretly selling such data to partners or the highest bidders is unacceptable. 

Salaat First is an app for Muslims that uses location data to calculate prayer times. Disturbingly, it became well-known for selling this information to a data broker, which would resell it to other entities. 

In addition to app owners abusing location data sharing, carriers can sell it to various third parties. Such incidents highlight a shadow economy, allowing your data to reach entities you do not even know. 

Location data sharing with third-parties

The ad-tech industry actively uses your real-time location data sets to promote services in your region via ads. Consumers might be unaware of the sheer volume of data-sharing between app owners and marketers. Research shows that popular apps give away information on consumers’:

  • Browsing habits
  • Religious preferences 
  • Health details 
  • Political views
  • Location data
  • Sexual orientation
  • Birthday
  • Device IDs

Decreasing the supply of location data is challenging. Both Google and Apple recently gave users of their respective OS more power to limit location information sharing. The changes were useful for halting tracking when apps run in the background. 

How to limit location data sharing? 

It might not be possible to disable location data sharing altogether. However, there are steps to reduce the volume of data flowing to third parties. 

You can disable location services via your iOS or Android settings. However, you might need finer-grained controls.

Do not hastily agree to location data sharing with apps. Additionally, ensure that apps cannot collect location data when inactive. 

Perform this change via your smartphone’s settings, managing given permissions. 

Furthermore, disable radio transmitters such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi when you do not actively use them. Metadata also contains location data from photos. 

Use a VPN to hide IP addresses

You can disable geotargeting in both iOS and Android. Lastly, A Virtual Private Network (VPN) makes it challenging for online entities to keep track of users’ locations. 

After you connect to a VPN server, it replaces your IP address with the one pinpointing your selected region. Hence, it helps obscure locations, anonymize browsing, and supply fewer data to online entities.

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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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