how apps use location data

A New Report on How Apps Use Our Location Data Is Kind of...Terrifying

BRB, changing our location settings.

You might have downloaded the Weather Channel’s app so you can find out if the temperature today is abominable or just plain cold. But you might not have realized that IBM owns that app, and they didn’t buy it just because they love a forecast of partly sunny with a chance of snow. Location data has become big business—so colossal that sales of location-based advertising will hit an estimated $21 billion this year. And that means companies know where you are. All the time.

For example: McDonald’s used the Weather Channel’s app to advertise limited-time McCafé offerings. Then they used tracking data to conclude that a whopping 79 percent of the approximately five million people who were “exposed” (like a virus) to the ads visited a McDonald’s within three days. Those ads were potentially targeted already, which could explain the high success rate (or maybe some people just really like a watery latte).

It’s not all so relatively benign as bad coffee and weather forecasts, though. In a new report from the New York Times, which examined an extraordinary amount of location-tracking data, it was found just how easy it is to obtain highly personal details about one’s habits and lifestyle by simply analyzing the data. More than 1,000 apps embed location-sharing code into their platforms—about 1,200 apps for Androids, and about 200 on Apple’s iOS. And they’re all keeping tabs on where you go. Sometimes all the time, depending on your settings.

In a web seminar from last year found by the Times, an exec at location-services company GroundTruth showed potential clients how the map of a person’s commute could unveil that person’s preferences. Even eerier still: “We look to understand who a person is based on where they’ve been and where they’re going, in order to influence what they’re going to do next,” she said in her lecture.

Next time you have a craving for a McCafé, perhaps examine where that urge really came from. Moreover, take matters into your own hands and adjust your smartphone settings to limit the data flowing freely to apps, and stop the stream of personal data to strangers at big corporations. 

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