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Thanks to location tracking, your phone knows what you did last summer

A recent investigation undertaken by The New York Times has revealed the frightening truth of how mobile apps collect our daily whereabouts and sell our data to the highest bidders.

These days, it’s not your wife, your best friend or your mom who knows you best. It’s your mobile phone.

That shiny little gadget in our pockets knows the complete list of our friends, our purchases, banking information, every search we make and website we visit and every conversation we have. On top of that, it tracks out every move.

That’s why it’s disturbing to realise that app developers are passing around all that information.

Imagine if some corporation had access to the daily movements of your children, including precise coordinates and timestamps, or how you would feel if someone in some development team could tell your identity from your daily routine.

Just think for a second that there’s a company out there that would know if you stayed over at your ex’s house last week.

The recent investigation by a team of reporters from The New York Times discovered that a flurry of popular apps sell or pass on your precise location information to at least 75 companies.

These businesses then analyse your data – usually to give customer behaviour insight – and share it with other companies like retail outlets, advertisers and hedge funds.

Apps that seem harmless on the surface, like news or weather services, can pinpoint your movements with disturbing accuracy, in some cases refreshing your location more than 14,000 times a day.

You are exposed every time you enable location services. There are more than 1,000 apps currently in use that contain location-sharing code, according to 2018 data from mobile analytics firm MightySignal.

There is about 200 in Apple’s iOS store and 1,200 on Google Play.

For example, Reveal Mobile, a development company based in North Carolina, has location-gathering code built into more than 500 apps.

Our location is in high demand right now. With sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated A$29 billion this year, many big players are after a slice of the pie. Foursquare recently morphed into a location marketing company and IBM recently bought the Weather Channel’s apps.

The worrying truth is that companies can bypass customer protection laws with savvy legal practices. As things stand right now, any app out there might share your location information with other companies as long as the developers mention it somewhere in their privacy policy.

Dating apps, traffic, shopping and weather services are the most likely to spill out your location data. The good news is that while you might not be able to delete what they’ve recorded about you so far, you can prevent anyone tracking you further by deactivating location services with a few tweaks.

At the very least you can choose to allow certain apps to track you when you want.

On Android, any app that has permission to track your location can do so even when you aren’t using it. Google has instructions on its website, but the best thing to do is disable location services altogether and activate them only when you’re using an app that relies on location, like Google Maps.

IOS devices allow you to deactivate location services on a per-app basis. Navigate to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and you will see the list of apps that track your location. You can set them individually to track you “While Using the App”, “Always”, or “Never”.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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