As location-aware advertising goes mainstream 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. Marketers spent $16 billion on location-targeted ads served to mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers in 2017. That’s 40% of all mobile ad spending, research firm BIA/Kelsey estimates.
The data required to serve you any single ad might 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 continuing high-speed auctions for ad space.
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.
Every month the firm Ground Truth tracks 70 million people in the U.S. as they go to work in the morning, come home at night, surge in and out of public events, take vacations, you name it. Companies like Ground Truth try to ensure they aren’t tracking or storing data on individuals. Most of what they sell are anonymous blobs of people who fit particular descriptions—”soccer moms who intend to buy an SUV,” for example.
Firms in the U.S. are governed by federal and state laws that regulate the collection and use of data in the particular businesses their clients are involved in. Nearly every year, a bill comes up in the Senate or House that would regulate our data privacy—the most recent was after the Equifax breach—but none has passed.
There might never be a breach of our location data. But given the drumbeat of hacks of both companies and governments, it’s hard to believe hackers aren’t at least trying to compromise such a high-value target.
Mims, C. (2018, March 4). Your Location Data Is Being Sold—Often Without Your Knowledge. Wall Street Journal.