You’re likely aware that your smartphone is collecting data about you and your movements. You give apps permission to access your location so that you can check in on Facebook or receive customized recommendations on Yelp. Maybe you deny all permissions because you’re wary of big companies collecting your data. As it turns out, companies are tracking us far more than we realized.
The journalists behind New York Times’s Privacy Project recently obtained the largest and most sensitive data file concerning private users’ locations. Journalists were able to track the movements of 50 million people throughout the country’s biggest cities. The information was collected over several months in 2016 and 2017.
When you think about the companies tracking your data, you might be thinking of Google, Amazon and Apple. In reality, you likely haven’t heard of the companies who actually own your data. The file The New York Times analyzed was from a location data company who provides its technology to other companies. The file was provided by an employee who was alarmed by how much information the company could access.
While this information seems alarming, these companies are going largely unchecked. It is legal for companies to collect and track this data. Additionally, users are happy to provide their data in exchange for the apps we use to power our daily lives. With every download, we give private companies and unknown employees access to our personal information. We simply trust that these companies are doing the right thing with our data.
This information is troubling at best. An authoritarian government could use this information to suppress political rivals. On a smaller scale, criminals could use the information to find victims. There’s no guarantee that even the most honest data collectors with the best of intentions can prevent a hack that exposes our information.
Even in the best-case scenario, companies are using this data to sell consumers more products. Advertisers are getting more sophisticated about finding new ways to market to us based on our movements.
Industry professionals understand that “anonymous” location information is never truly anonymous. NYT journalists were able to track data to celebrities and other public figures. Still, companies continue to claim that user information is protected.
We live in a world where to participate effectively in business and society, we have no other choice but to make our data available to private companies. When designing and interacting with web products, it’s important to understand what’s realistic and what’s ethical.
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