As location-aware advertising goes mainstream—like that Jack in the Box ad that appears whenever you get near one, in whichever app you have open at the time—and as popular apps harvest your lucrative location data, the potential for leaking or exploiting this data has never been higher.
It’s true that your smartphone’s location-tracking capabilities can be helpful, whether it’s alerting you to traffic or inclement weather. That utility is why so many of us are giving away a great deal more location data than we probably realize. Every time you say “yes” to an app that asks to know your location, you are also potentially authorizing that app to sell your data.
Dozens of companies track location and/or serve ads based on this data. They aim to compile a complete record of where everyone in America spends their time, in order to chop those histories into market segments to sell to corporate advertisers.
Marketers spent $16 billion on location-targeted ads served to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets in 2017. That’s 40% of all mobile ad spending, research firm BIA/Kelsey estimates, and it expects spending on these ads to double by 2021.
The data required to serve you any single ad may pass through many companies’ systems in milliseconds—from data broker to ad marketplace to an agency’s custom system. In part, this is just how online advertising works, where massive marketplaces hold ongoing high-speed auctions for ad space.
But the fragmentation also is due to a very real fear of the public backlash and legal liability that might occur if there were a breach. Imagine the Equifax breach, except instead of your Social Security number, it’s everywhere you’ve been, including your home, your workplace and your children’s schools.
The fix, at least for now, is that with most individual data vendors holding only parts of your data, your complete, identifiable profile is never all in one place. Giants like Google and Facebook , who do have all your data in one place, say they are diligent about throwing away or not gathering what they don’t need, and eliminating personally identifying information from the remainder.
Yet as the industry and the ways to track us expand, the possibility that our whereabouts will be exposed multiplies.
The spy in your pocket
If you’ve ever felt clever because an app on your phone asked to track your location and you said no, this should make you feel a little less smug: There are plenty of ways to track you without getting your permission. Some of the most intrusive are the easiest to implement.
Your telco knows where you are at all times, because it knows which cell towers your phone is near. In the U.S., how much data service-providers sell is up to them.