Should you allow location data sharing?

Anton P. | January 15, 2021

Location data sharing has proven to be distasteful, invasive, and borderline dangerous. Many companies have the power to keep tabs on our physical movements. Of course, mapping services and ride-hailing apps have justifiable reasons for retrieving location details. However, many providers might fail to disclose how they handle location data. Evidence from the last decade implies that services treat such information as goods ready to be sold to the highest bidder. Users note that unethical location data sharing is not only a digital privacy threat. It bleeds into danger to our physical safety since we have limited control of who has obtained our data.

How does location data sharing work?

Consumers’ geolocation is a variable tracked by a range of devices and systems. Smartphones have built-in features allowing 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, even if users disable location services via phone settings, GPS tracking remains active. While apps will no longer access geo-data, your OS will still retrieve it.

Users also agree to location data sharing 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 unpredictable wireless capabilities. Light bulls, thermostats, cookware, and a bundle of others can retrieve users’ geolocations.

Location data sharing, at the surface, might appear as a practical feature. It is a critical element in apps providing delivery, weather forecast, roadside assistance, or speedy transport services. Nevertheless, your exact geolocation, or even approximate whereabouts, constitute personal data you need to secure.

GDPR includes location as one of the components that can single out and identify users. The overall belief is that all services relying on geolocation for their service delivery 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 consumers’ awareness is necessary to prevent misuse and mitigate risks.

When can location data sharing turn toxic?

In 2018, a survey by HERE revealed consumer attitudes towards location tracking. It told that most participants felt like location data sharing was intrusive and anxiety-triggering. In addition to feeling generally uncomfortable, 77% of people highlighted fears of burglaries, physical harm, and stalkers. Tech-savvy testees were more dismissive of current tracking practices. However, only 9% of participants stated to review and update location data sharing settings. Thus, while people admitted to feeling unease about current tracking practices, they were unwilling to act on them.

Coming to terms with location data sharing is also challenging due to ever-growing misuse and overly intrusive provider attitudes.

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 as it forced users to give Uber full access or none at all. Later, Uber terminated this feature and even moved to provide services even without requiring location data sharing.

Apps that conceal their location-tracking capabilities

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

Apps that do not secure personal data properly

A secret-sharing app called Whisper proved just 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 location coordinates of the users’ last submitted post. Many of them pinpointed to offices, residential areas, or educational institutions.

Apps selling location data to third parties

At this stage of digital marketing, sharing location data with advertisers is relatively common. However, secretly selling such data to partners or 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 also 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 is an entity that actively uses your location data to promote services in your region via ads. Consumers might be unaware of the sheer volume of data-sharing occurring 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
  • Unique IDs linked to our smartphones

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

The demand for location data has never been higher. It has become the primary feature in contact-tracing apps aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. Hence, minimizing the supply requires long-term solutions and active participation from lawmakers.

How to limit location data sharing?

It might not be possible to disable location data sharing altogether. However, there are steps to reduce the volumes of data flowing to third parties. You can disable location services via your iOS or Android settings. However, you might need more finer-grained controls.

Do not hastily agree to location data sharing with apps, especially if it is not vital to their functionality. Additionally, ensure that apps cannot obtain geospatial data when they are not active. Perform this change via your smartphone’s settings, managing given permissions. For some apps, it might be best to cut the cord altogether. Find app permissions in your respective smartphone and disable access for apps that might collect location data unnecessarily.

Furthermore, disable radio transmitters such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi when you do not actively use them. Metadata on pictures can also contain location information. You can disable geotagging in both iOS and Android. Lastly, A Virtual Private Network (VPN) makes it challenging for online entities to keep track of users’ locations. As soon as you connect to a VPN server, it replaces your IP address with the one pinpointing to the selected region. Hence, it helps obscure locations, anonymize your browsing, and supply fewer data to online entities.

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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