We Are All Being Tracked: Geolocation Privacy Gaining Steam

There’s no way around it. Every cell phone user is being tracked whether they like it or not. It’s really a matter of who is doing it and what they’re doing with that data.

You may remember a couple years ago the scandal regarding the Big Three US carriers sending massive amounts of personal data over to Carrier IQ.

Every telecom has to track each device on its network to properly route calls as users move around it’s network. Cellphones are constantly pinging cell towers that are within range to let the carriers know exactly where that cell phone is.


Third-Party Companies Getting Into the Game

Private companies over the last few years have got into the game and track user’s location without the user’s consent and sell that data to big box retail and other types of businesses in order to track marketing metrics. In fact, there is a burgeoning industry solely focused on tracking consumers’ whereabouts.

This is all done by tracking the device’s MAC address as it’s constantly sniffing out the closest wifi hotspots to potentially connect up to. This is all happening in the background typically without the user’s consent or knowledge. These systems automatically log any phone within wifi range, giving stores a complete record of who walked into the shop and when.

Apple’s upcoming iOS 8 promises to provide extra security against unsolicited user tracking by spoofing the MAC address on the device so that these aforementioned companies can no longer track individual devices. It’s like a cloaking device for your phone.


Best Practices

A recent report shows that almost two-thirds of users are actually happy share their location data to app providers as long as they are able to opt-in and out. App developers need to be keenly aware of user privacy issues and look to adopt best practices when asking for this sensitive information. Geo-location privacy is a hot topic with the FTC and Congress. The proposed Location Privacy Protection Act 2014 legislation sets out a number of important provisions for companies to follow:

  1. Companies need to be more transparent with consumers and disclose that tracking data is being collected;
  2. Companies need to ask for express consent from consumers to track their location data.

The research shows that consumers are happy to provide consent where companies are both upfront about the collection and providing a useful experience to the consumer in return.