Pagoda Blog

The Privacy Risks of Location Tracking

January 2, 2020

When you download a new app on your phone, you’re often pinged with a request to share your location. Many of us allow this form of data sharing without much thought. Hitting ‘Accept’ has almost become an involuntary reflex. But what are these companies doing with your location data, how much does this information reveal about our personal lives, and who else may have access to it? These are all questions that are important to consider as location tracking becomes increasingly ubiquitous, raising privacy concerns for individuals and society as a whole.  


Location tracking rules have to be made to be broken  

What many people don’t realize is how unregulated location tracking actually is. There are currently no government regulations around location tracking. That job is left to the private companies, like Uber and Google, who are tracking your location in the first place. Several industry groups have created ethical guidelines that some companies have pledged to follow, but these are simply guidelines with no repercussions to ensure enforcement. 


As of January 2020, California is enacting the California Consumer Protection Act that will put more power in the hands of the consumer when it comes to data privacy and collection. Under the new act, consumers can prevent companies from sharing their personal data with third parties, request to have their data deleted, and sue the company in the case of a data breach (if the company’s security practices are found to be inadequate). This is a step in the right direction, but the California Consumer Protection Act has its limitations. 


One limitation is that it only applies to companies with at least $25 million in annual revenue and enforcement won’t begin until July of 2020. In addition, according to California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra, his office only has the budget to conduct three enforcement actions a year. This means that it is still largely up to you, the individual consumer, to take the proper steps to protect your data.  


What your location says about you 

In order to protect your personal information it’s important to debunk the myth that location tracking is anonymous. As it turns out, location tracking by its nature can’t be anonymous. Even if you share nothing else with an app, the ability to see your daily commute from home to work can reveal your identity. Who else would travel from your home to your place of work five days a week? With your home and work address in hand, it’s not difficult to reveal your full name, email address, gender, and other private information that could open you up to identity theft, credit card fraud, or some other form of cybersecurity threat. 


In an opinion piece titled One Nation, Tracked, the New York Times created a series of maps showing how the movements of 12 million Americans are being actively tracked, even in highly secure places like the Pentagon and the White House. Their reporting revealed that the level of location tracking made possible by our smartphones gives companies access to our exact route to work on a daily basis, where we go grocery shopping, how often we go to the doctor, where our children go to school … the list goes on. Basically, every action we take is tracked, whether we realize we granted access or not. This is worrying for many reasons, one being that we simply don’t yet understand what it means to share this level of personal information on such a large scale. It could impact elections, health care coverage, employment, and so much more.  


Location tracking has practically become a fact of life, but more and more people are starting to question it and companies are responding. For example, Apple’s most recent software update, iOS 13, includes notifications that inform you when apps are using your location, giving you the option to stop sharing this information. The aforementioned California Consumer Protection Act will also help motivate companies to better protect our data, yet these actions still don’t prevent companies from collecting sensitive information in the first place. 


Does that app really need your location? 

The next time an app requests access to your location, ask yourself whether or not that information is required for the app to function. It’s also worth researching the security of that app. Does the parent company have reputable data security practices in place or are they vulnerable to a data breach? Does the company make a practice of selling the data they collect to third parties? This information isn’t always easy to uncover but the more people who demand to know, the more common it will become for companies to openly release this information and to tighten their security standards. 


Have questions regarding location tracking and how to limit the personal information you share online? Get in touch and subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest posts on technology, cybersecurity, and digital marketing. 


Related Posts: 

Are You Doing All You Can to Protect Your Customer Data?

Your Data and Facebook: Protecting Your Business in the Social Media Age

Your Web Browser and ISP Know You Better Than You Think  



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