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Geo Tracking and How to Go Unnoticed

October 05, 2017

If you watch crime dramas, you’ve probably seen scenes where detectives tracked a criminal’s location via their cellphone. If you’re nervous about being stalked via your phone, relax: in real life, it requires a warrant, court order, or proof that there is a life-threatening emergency before cellular companies will release your location to government agencies. However, there is still a tangle of privacy issues around location services and cellular data. Here’s an overview of who knows where you go and what you can do about it.

Your location information is generated and owned by your cellular provider as you move around their network and between networks. Besides law enforcement or emergency services, there are three main groups that use that information.

App makers: From navigation applications to the Starbucks app that finds the nearest store, many of your software applications use location information to provide services. In most cases, sharing your location is necessary to get the information you want, but some apps can also be infected with spyware that tracks you for nefarious reasons.

Device manufacturers: Some of the operating system functionality on your device uses location information. For example, a Find My Phone app or automatic time zone setting needs to know where you are. The device manufacturer may also use aggregated location data from users to help them improve products and services, but that data is de-identified so it can’t be tracked back to a specific person.

Advertisers: While cellular companies have not been in the business of selling customers’ locations, they do make money by delivering paid advertising to users based on location. For example, they could send hotel ads to people who frequently visit a city or pop up a coupon offer when someone comes within a certain distance of a restaurant. (The practice of tracking when a user comes within a certain zone is called “geo-fencing.”)

If you’re concerned about privacy and don’t want your location tracked, there are several things you can do. First, go into the settings on your device and turn off location services for any apps that don’t need them. If your device gives you the option, set other apps to use location services only when you have the app open. (Obvious exceptions are 911 or Find My Phone apps, which should have location info available instantly when needed.) To avoid spyware, be careful to download apps only from reputable sources, and check the location services settings when you get a new app.

Finally, be an advocate for your privacy rights. In March 2017, Congress voted to undo rules that would have kept cellular companies from selling your personal information, such as browsing history, shopping habits, and location, without your consent. If you want to keep your activities private, review cellular contracts carefully, challenge provisions you don’t like, and ask your state and national representatives to put your privacy ahead of someone else’s profits.

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