Reminder: Your phone is tracking your every move (and the data isn’t so anonymous)

Anonymous cell phone location data isn’t so anonymous after all. Here’s what you can do about it.


December 20, 2019

Yesterday, the NYT published a bombshell report on the smartphone tracking industry. And not to sound the alarm bell, but it should freak you out at least a little bit.

An unnamed source gave the Times a massive trove of location data from 12m cell phones — more than 50B “pings” in total, registered in places ranging from the White House to seedy LA motels.

But it’s not so anonymous, after all

Many cell phone apps — weather utilities, maps, and services that don’t need your location at all — collect, and sometimes sell, location data harvested from your phone through software developer kits. Sometimes, these companies collect this data up to 14k times per day.

The companies that collect this data often argue that it is 100% anonymous. But this isn’t really the case.

The NYT was able to easily identify individuals — including state officials, celebrities, and cops — by tracing location data patterns. Sometimes, the data revealed sensitive information, like a trip to an abortion clinic.

Previous studies have shown that the “anonymity” of location data is mitigated by its precision: In one case, MIT researchers were able to identify 95% of users in a similar data set.

Here’s how you can improve your privacy 

Luckily, there is a way for you to limit apps’ ability to collect your location data (note that turning off this data will affect the performance of certain location-dependent apps, like weather and maps). Here’s how:

  • On iOS: Settings → Privacy → Location Services → Set all apps to “Never”
  • On Android: Settings → Security & location → Location (under “Privacy” section) → App-level permissions → Toggle location data on/off

If this doesn’t work, you can always follow this author’s course of action: Throw your phone off a bridge and move to the woods.

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