"WE KNOW WHERE YOU'VE BEEN, DAVE," whispers that odd cat-a-day app you downloaded for comfort after a break up. At least it might do if we lived in a horror version of a New York Times investigation that discovered apps know way too much about their users.
The news outlet's research found that loads of apps suck up smartphone location data to use to fuel adverts and, in some cases, help hedge fund companies figure out where to make investments. While this data is claimed to be anonymous, the NYT's research showed that it can display quite a lot of personal info if skilfully perused.
By looking at a database of harvested location data from 2017 from some 75 companies, the NYT was able to plot the locations on a map, identified as dots, and link data points to individuals, effectively tracking them as they went about their business in 2017.
While the data is used to power things like weather forecast services based on location or get used for marketing and service delivery purposes for third-parties, as is the case with Foursquare, the location data can be extrapolated to effectively identify individuals.
And even though the location data in the NYT's investigation is not linked to a user ID or phone number, people with access to the raw data could identify a person without their consent by say pinpointing a phone that regularly spent time at a location; basically figuring out if a data point belongs to that bloke who's always gabbling business speak into his mobile when coming out of that swanky looking townhouse.
With access to public records or publicly accessible information, that data could be effectively reverse engineered to figure out who lives at said location and thereby who the dot on the data map links to.
And with the location data of the database the NYT examined being updated every two seconds or so with new data points, someone willing to invest the time and effort could figure out some intimate details about an individual they've managed to identify, such as when they may have visited a sexual health clinic or a casino.
For people who love whoring around and gambling, or simply don't want anonymous companies seemingly knowing where they were last night, such information could be seen as a creepy infringement of privacy.
One could argue this is the price we pay, or indeed don't pay for, a plethora of super handy services; some of us would be curled up on a street corner of London weeping into a Starbucks coffee sample cup if it wasn't for various mapping and cab-hailing services.
But at the same time, it's also a question of awareness. Should companies be collecting this data, even if it's seemingly anonymous at first, without people explicit knowledge of how it's being used? And should firms be able to make buckets of cash off trading such data without cutting in the people who are effectively the source of such valuable information?
Different mobile platforms have different takes on this, with Apple's iOS only allowing data collection and use if the apps justify and alert such practices to their users. Google has also taken steps to limit how often apps can update location data, but it hasn't outlawed is or forced developers to make the collection of this data and its use super explicit.
We're a tad torn on the whole thing. We don't want Faceless Firm One to rake in cash off our backs, but at the same time, we don't want to pay for the plethora of handy apps we use day-in, day-out. Answers on a virtual postcard folks. µ
We don't have enough faces or palms
You'll find it in the App Store under 'hipster'
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