Map pins in city showing location tracking and location data

Striking a Balance: Privacy in the Age of Location Tracking

Online privacy is a multifaceted topic, but location tracking stands out for its straightforward implications amidst the complexities. Imagine a map showing the detailed locations of your movements, laying bare your habits, relationships, and even vulnerabilities in times of crisis, such as seeking refuge from domestic or substance abuse. It’s a breach of privacy that strikes at the core of our personal autonomy.

The market for location data is staggering, surpassing $12 billion annually. Yet, it’s riddled with privacy pitfalls. Location data can encompass a wide array of details, from medical visits and shelter stays to religious practices and even our children’s whereabouts. Precise location is particularly concerning among the trove of personal data brokers collect. We’re talking pinpoint accuracy, sometimes down to a car length. State laws are starting to catch up, labeling this as “sensitive personal information” and mandating explicit consent before collection.

How do brokers get location data?

Most of us carry smartphones with GPS capabilities, allowing apps and services to pinpoint our whereabouts with remarkable accuracy. Consider, for instance, the plethora of apps on your smartphone that request access to your location. While some requests are legitimate and necessary for the app’s functionality, others may have more dubious intentions. It’s not uncommon for apps to collect location data for purposes unrelated to their primary function, such as targeted advertising or selling to third-party data brokers. And once it’s in the hands of a data broker, it’s entirely out of your control.

Furthermore, the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) devices has expanded the scope of location tracking beyond smartphones. Smart home devices, wearable fitness trackers, and even modern vehicles are equipped with GPS technology, constantly generating data about our movements and activities.

While this technology has undoubtedly improved convenience in various aspects of our lives, it raises significant concerns regarding privacy and security.

While many companies claim to obtain user consent before collecting location data, the reality is often more complicated. Lengthy terms of service agreements filled with legal jargon make it challenging for users to fully understand what they’re agreeing to. Additionally, the opt-out mechanisms provided by many services are often buried deep within settings menus, making them difficult to find and use.

Notable cases underscore the gravity of the situation. The Federal Trade Commission cracked down on Kochava for enabling unauthorized tracking of sensitive places. More recently, DRN and X-Mode faced scrutiny too. DRN tracks movements via license plates and sells data to debt collectors, which misuses sensitive information.

Steps companies and individuals can take to protect against location-sharing data

Despite these challenges, there are steps that individuals can take to protect their privacy in an increasingly surveilled world. Simple measures such as reviewing app permissions, disabling location services for non-essential apps, and using virtual private networks (VPNs) can help mitigate the risks associated with location tracking. Only allow location sharing when necessary, check who has access to your information, and consider using privacy tools like Apple’s Private Relay. Also, ensure the companies you interact with are transparent about handling your data. We can create a safer digital environment by understanding privacy policies, managing permissions on devices and apps, and supporting privacy-conscious companies. Advocating for stronger privacy regulations and holding companies accountable for their data practices can help address systemic issues in the industry. Additionally, advocating for stronger privacy regulations and holding companies responsible for their data practices can help address systemic problems in the industry.

For companies engaging third parties, know who they are and utilize contract controls. Outline the permitted data uses and prohibit the sale or transfer of precise geolocation data. Educating developers on data usage limits is crucial, too. Try to limit the amount of third-party code implemented on your platforms. Identify which third parties use geolocation data. Make sure that prompts are enabled to ask users to consent to location data sharing.

Broader actions are needed to protect against over-exploitation of location-sharing

The issue of location tracking goes beyond just privacy—it’s about protecting our fundamental rights in today’s digital world. To navigate this, we must stay informed, push for stronger regulations, and take steps to safeguard our data and privacy. This includes being aware of evolving technology and its impact on online privacy.

While new legislation like Washington’s My Health, My Data Act and federal initiatives are emerging, privacy is still challenging due to technical limitations and a lack of awareness. Collaboration among stakeholders—government agencies, tech companies, advocacy groups, and consumers—is critical to effectively addressing privacy challenges. Together, we can develop and implement comprehensive privacy frameworks that protect individuals’ rights while fostering innovation and economic growth.

Location-tracking technology offers undeniable benefits regarding convenience and personalization, but it also poses significant risks to our privacy and security. By remaining vigilant and informed about how our data is collected and used, we can better protect ourselves in an increasingly digital world.