What you need to know:

All smartphones can track and collect location data. Generally, the device manufacturer, operating system provider, mobile carrier network as well as a variety of phone apps can directly collect and utilize your location data. 

Mobile carriers can obtain this data as your smartphone constantly communicates with nearby cell phone towers, which allow them to work out your approximate location based on its proximity to those towers. Mobile apps collect GPS location data when you have location tracking turned on, which many times is requested by the app under the guise of getting directions or traffic details, local news and weather or other localized information.

Many of these companies monetize this data by sharing it with third parties like advertising companies and data brokers, who then in turn can share it with a whole host of other parties like retailers to understand their customers better, banks and financial institutions to understand consumer trends, governments to monitor its citizens and even small private businesses like bail bondsmen or private investigators to track individuals.

Your location data is said to be shared “anonymously” and tied to a unique ID versus personally identifiable information, however it’s been researched that this data can often be reverse engineered to identify a person when connected with other data points (including publicly available information). 

These companies will also claim that you have to opt-in in order for the data to be captured and shared. But generally, this disclosure is buried in the policies in terms and conditions which are rarely read and which can be generally misleading. Location tracking can also be tied to legitimate location enabled services you want, with no way of opting out of the sharing policy you don’t want.

Finally, there is no telling where your data may end up, with so many companies collecting this data, who then directly share it with a multitude of third parties, who in turn can share it with many other business and private individuals. As your data passes through so many hands in this complex shadow ecosystem, many of these companies do not necessarily have the correct safeguards in place to protect your data from ultimately landing in the wrong hands.

Learn More:

An investigation on how smartphone location data is collected, utilized and how it can be used to track individuals in startling detail

An investigation on how smartphone location data can get in the hands of private businesses and individuals like bounty hunters

How mobile carriers have promised to stop selling user data but haven’t yet lived up to that promise

How the government obtains data from location data brokers and how law enforcement has used a service from Securus Technologies to get real time location data

Tech companies are using location data to map social distancing during the pandemic, amid privacy debates around governments also accessing this data 

How Apple will implement features in its new iOS update and within the app store to provide more transparency and control around app tracking

What to do:

See this guide on how to minimize location tracking for Apple and Android smartphone devices.