Geolocation Data Tracking: What Are the Privacy Risks?

Your Location Is Being Monitored

Your phone, car, and numerous other connected devices are tracking you; what's the harm? Once a luxury and now a connected default, we live in a world where business and government can know where we are at any given time and where we've been; so long as we're allowing that data to be collected and accessed. Telecommunications companies and smartphone manufactures continue to state there’s no risk to privacy, but is that really true? As a safety feature most geolocation data is anatomized prior to being saved or sold, but researchers in data and privacy have proven that may not be enough: the geolocation data might appear harmless, but all it takes is one algorithm to combine recognize patters and combine it with personally identifiable information for the data’s owner to be found. This becomes particularly alarming when the full details of how much geolocation data is being saved and stored is rarely shared with users: in 2011 iPhone and iPad customers found out Apple had been tracking their movements, for over a year, in a file far to accessible to others.

Of course, it's one thing to know you're being tracked, it's another to consider what that data is actually used for. Thinking about the impacts of privacy, the question comes up: what CAN they do with my geological movements and locations? After all, comes the argument against privacy, if you’re not doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? Certainly the capture of geolocation data on its own isn't a bad thing; instead like most privacy issues the real concerns come down to trust, ethics and understanding. Here are five reasons you might want to check the fine print of that app or service, and be aware before you share:

1. Geolocation Data: the Must-Have for Stalkers.

Unfortunately, while we try to keep each other safe, being followed by those we want to avoid is a major problem for many. Bad ties, relationships gone wrong, someone who cannot recognize that their attentions are unwanted: a survey conducted in 2009 by Statistics Canada revealed 20,000 cases of staking reported to police, about 59 cases per 100000 of the population. Keep in mind this is a low estimate: another report by stats Canada during the same year noted only 3 in 10 Canadians who had been victimized contact police to report. Nor does a would-be stalker require significant technical know-how to get the data: apps such as Tinder and Happn are infamous for oversharing, and many businesses are just starting to recognize that proper protection begins with basic access controls. If you're finding an unwanted face wherever you go, check your data sharing and reach out to authorities & organizations here to help.

2. Ashley Madison 2.0: Where Are You? Your Spouse Knows.

This was most recently highlighted in a court case against Uber in France, where a wife caught her husband’s extramarital affair, thanks to a bug in the software that sent alerts and transportation details to her handset. Ouch! This isn’t the first time transport giant Uber has been criticized by the exceptional use and lack of transparency around location data, nor likely will it be the last: in 2014 it was revealed that the business help a ‘God View’ that could track its users movements in real-time, and employees have been known to use the service as a way of tracking celebrities and ex-relationships. Whether the Uber France 45 million lawsuit now in action will have an effect on the company’s respect for privacy is unknown; however safe to say there’s at least one relationship that won’t be recovering.

3. Have You Ever Become Involved in a Protest? The Local Law Enforcement Could Know You're There.

In October 2016, stories hit online from the ACLU about Geofeedia, a platform that used data from such popular social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter, and turned them into location-based monitoring. Location data was being used to track protestors at such high-profile events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. By the time the story about the business’s operations broke out, Geofeedia providing information with over 500 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In September of 2016, Facebook cut access to Geofeedia, while Twitter dropped access in October.

4. Employers Could Be Monitoring .

Arguments for and against employer monitoring of employees have sprung up increasingly over the past few years, now that the technology is much easier, and less expensive, to bring in. On the other employer side, knowing where staff are at any moment is a valuable asset: from tracking deliveries to knowing when the team is on-site, to troubleshooting by finding out who is closest to an urgent situation. Employees however, may not be as comfortable at the prospect: geotracking erodes trust, and things get thorny when that tracking doesn't end after the workday. Dealing with a health issue that requires regular clinical visits? Going for an interview with another firm? If monitoring is still being done after work hours, your boss could know. As for employee protection, laws in North America are murky at best, both south and north of the border. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada highly recommends against the practice, but whether or not employee tracking can be deemed illegal often depends on different factors in the industry (private or public sector), agreements before hiring (unit agreements, signed agreements at the time of hiring) and individual state/provincial laws. For now, the decision rests on both parties to make the call: employers, who should consider the effects on work quality, ethics and risks if the collected data falls into the wrong hands, against conscience employees whom may take their skills and time elsewhere.

5. Location-Specific Advertising.

You’re on the road, walking driving or via public transit. Through tracking your mobile browsing habits, your device knows you have a thing for good coffee and environmentally friendly makeup product. Oh, hey, were you aware as you stroll by 5th avenue there’s a new shop just around the corner that’s having a sale, specifically on the product you often look up? Or that two paces to the left and you can get that java fix? If online advertising and selling has been a curse to physical outlets, advertising based on your GPS data might help turn the tide. After all, while wait for a shipment or start filtering through options when there’s a store you go by every day with the exact or very similar products to the kind you often enjoy? You were recently looking up home cough remedies, and there’s a pharmacy just around the corner from you now with those good cough drops, the ones you couldn’t seem to find at your regular haunts. The possibilities here are enough to make marketers salivate, and consumers curious. Certainly knowing when you’re in the area for an item you want to buy is useful; however on the other side the notifications could be eerie and the idea that big brother is walking you shop, literally as you walk, is more than a bit discerning.


It's important to recognize that geotracking data on its own is not a bad thing. There are numerous, hugely beneficial impacts and use of the technology, including finding friends when they're in the area, urban design based on population movement, and helping lost souls (blog writer included) when they can't find their way out of a paper bag. One particularly life-saving use of geolocation data comes in the healthcare sectors: app developers like PulsePoint, which connects those knowledgeable in CPR with nearby victims of cardiac arrest. However, it should always be up to the user if they want to share, and or them to be aware they are being tracked and what it can be used for. Privacy means respect of space, and knowing that sometimes, even when we feel no harm is done, to check in before assuming our users want to be followed.

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