As Americans, we profess to love our privacy. Gone are the days of our youth when backyard football games stretched across several properties. Now everyone has a six-foot privacy fence and a host of webcams that ping us every time a feral cat crosses the front lawn.
And yet, we carry smartphones.
That nifty electronic slab in your pocket or purse is fabulous for communicating on the go, calling or texting when you’re bored in the dentist office, and even watching cat videos. But it does something else, too. Chances are your phone tells thousands of companies where it is and, by default, where you are, every few seconds of every day.
The info travels through the apps that you download and use. Some of these apps, like the WeatherBug app, have a legitimate purpose for collecting the data. If you quickly want to know what the weather looks like in your area, WeatherBug needs to know where you are. The company collects the exact latitude and longitude for your location, and then uses that pinpoint accuracy to feed you the current weather and the forecast. That seems reasonable.
But then WeatherBug goes a bit further. The company shares your exact location data with 40 companies, and you can bet that they get paid handsomely for passing along this tidbit of information.
It’s not illegal. You agree to allow the company to share your data when you download the app and quickly click through the terms and conditions.
WeatherBug isn’t alone. On Google’s Android operating system, researchers found over 1,000 apps that shared your location, and 17 that sent along exact coordinates to more than 70 companies.
Some of the apps, like WeatherBug, at least have a legitimate reason for collecting your location data, but others simply scoop it up to sell it. Is there a reason that the Angry Birds video game app needs to know where you are? And how about Clean Master, an app that scans for viruses and optimizes your phone service?
Don’t think that your information is anonymous. In addition to advertising data and coordinates, apps also collect unique identifiers for your physical phone, so they know exactly which phone travels where and when, even if you turn it off for a bit or take an airplane ride.
Imagine what you could learn about a person if you knew where they went during the day and where they lived. By cross-referencing public records, you could quickly put a name with a phone, and then connect it with that person’s personal physician, their mechanic, and their friends. A bit more data will show you how they vote, and which political candidates they funded.
Suddenly, the privacy fence and a couple of door cams don’t seem like such a good defense.
When it comes to our phones, there are measures we can take, but most people won’t do it because it’s a hassle.
On the iPhone, you can scroll through settings and click on each app to see which ones use your location services. Apple allows you to share your location data always, never, or only when using the app. You can also click on the universal location services button under privacy and turn it off. You’ll have to turn it back on whenever you want to use something that requires your location, like maps, but you won’t be broadcasting your whereabouts 24/7.
Google’s Android isn’t as easy. You can still scroll through your apps in settings and see which ones use your location services, but their choices are limited to “yes” and “no.”
With impeachment back on the scene as Congress reconvenes, the presidential election on the horizon, and the heightened conflict with Iran, the privacy dust-up of 2019 has faded to the background. Our chances of getting meaningful help from the major tech players seems remote as the pressure eases and they continue to earn billions by selling our data.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be a willing participant.
Take a few minutes to scroll through the apps on your phone and ask yourself if you want to be sharing your data with each app so they can make a few pennies. Is your privacy worth their profit? If not, turn off location services for that app, or better yet, ask yourself if you need the app at all.