The Money Trail

The Bane of Location Tracking


We gain a lot from smartphones, including instant access to a world of information, but it’s becoming clear that we also give up a great deal, particularly privacy. No matter where people are, some company somewhere has some interest in knowing the details. Every time users install an app, they pay with their personal information, usually without realizing the implications of the end-user agreements that they almost certainly didn’t read. And even if they did, it might not matter.

According to The New York Times, the privacy policies of apps that most people accept without thinking twice are often “incomplete or misleading”. Companies use these permissions to sell valuable location data.

Research and investigative reporting continue to reveal the degree to which smartphones are aware of users’ every move and location, and how much of that information is shared with companies that want to track their whereabouts, hoping to better target them with tailored adverts. It’s been reported that apps on smartphones can track users’ location up to 14,000 times a day. This means contact on a constant basis.

Apps form the backbone of what can be called the “location data economy”, considering the huge value of such individualized information. This information gets assembled into enormously detailed digital profiles, which can then be turned into money by combining online and offline data. App developers are able to charge a premium to advertisers to apply this data for targeted advertising, which is by far the most common use of the data.

The issue of location tracking isn’t new, but is being exacerbated by the number of apps and growing usage of smartphones. At the moment, there isn’t much regulation overseeing the practice of collecting location and other personal data, particularly in the US. European rules are more comprehensive, but the problem remains that people’s digital companions gather and share large amounts of detail about their real-world lives.

The collection and storage of all this information raises questions about how securely it’s handled and whether it’s vulnerable to hacking. It’s important for smartphone users to be made aware of any tracking. Although people can turn off location tracking by digging into a device’s settings, many users don’t realize the potential need for this.

Over time, we believe that manufacturers of smart devices, mobile operators and major Internet companies like Facebook and Google will increasingly feel pushback from consumers, who will look to hold some large company responsible. It’s best to find the right balance sooner rather than later.