NYT Investigation Reveals How Easily Smartphone Location Data Can Be Used to Identify and Track Individuals

The New York Times today claimed that it has obtained a file with the precise location of over 12 million smartphones over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. While this data is technically anonymized, the report details how easy it is to associate specific data points with specific individuals.


With the help of publicly available information, like home addresses, The New York Times said it easily identified and then tracked military officials, law enforcement officers, lawyers, tech employees, and others:
In one case, we observed a change in the regular movements of a Microsoft engineer. He made a visit one Tuesday afternoon to the main Seattle campus of a Microsoft competitor, Amazon. The following month, he started a new job at Amazon. It took minutes to identify him as Ben Broili, a manager now for Amazon Prime Air, a drone delivery service.
The report explains that location data is collected from third-party smartphone apps that have integrated SDKs from location data companies like Gimbal, NinthDecimal, Reveal Mobile, Skyhook, PlaceIQ, and others, adding that it is currently legal to collect and sell all this information in the United States.

Apple continues to take steps to protect the privacy of its users. In iOS 13, for example, there is no more "always allow" option when third-party apps request to access your location. If a user wants to grant an app continuous access to location data, they must do so in Settings > Privacy > Location Services.

Apple also requires that apps provide users with a detailed explanation as to how location data is being used when prompted.

iPhone users who are concerned about their privacy can better protect themselves by navigating to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and disabling access to location data for unessential apps, or choosing the "while using the app" option at a minimum. We also recommend reviewing the privacy policies of apps.

A spokesperson said Apple had no comment on The New York Times report when contacted by MacRumors.

Top Rated Comments

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10 weeks ago
As long as all these spying SDKs are allowed by Apple, they can suck it with their „we value your privacy“ PR talk
Rating: 10 Votes
10 weeks ago
The irony is that there are multiple trackers right here on MacRumors that do the exact same thing... I have at least six of them blocked at this very moment.

If you aren't using something like PrivacyPro and a VPN at all times, and multiple layers of device masking, plenty of people can figure out where you are at any given time.

Except Apple...which encrypts the information in both directions, and who can't look at your data.
Rating: 9 Votes
10 weeks ago
Problem 1. You chose to download an app from Google -or- an app that uses Google services.
Problem 2. You willingly gave Google your personal information.
Problem 3. You willingly agreed to Google TOS and allowed Google full access to all of your device data.

Solution.
Step 1. Delete anything by Google. Delete all Google accounts, Delete all Google apps.
Step 2 . No step 2 needed, Step 1 solves the above problems every time.

Note this Solution also works for anything by Facebook, Twitter or any other social media.
Rating: 9 Votes
10 weeks ago
Ok. Whatever. Everyone is tracked nowadays. Big surprise. Apple tracks our location too. To believe otherwise is naive
Rating: 7 Votes
10 weeks ago
Tracking individuals should be forbidden, actually, all data collected by any company should be anonymised.
Better yet*, don't collect any data on individuals.

*For commercial reasons.
Rating: 6 Votes
10 weeks ago
Does "while using the app" include when the app is in the background? Most people don't close their apps.
Rating: 6 Votes
10 weeks ago
Anytime I see everyone lamenting how bad it is that the Chinese government is setting up a massive surveillance network, I chuckle...because here we are buying the Ring doorbells, nest cameras, sharing location data, and we are basically providing the infrastructure, free of charge, to anyone who wants to tap in and see what we are up to.
Rating: 5 Votes
10 weeks ago
I’ll just stick with default Apple apps from now on then.
Rating: 5 Votes
10 weeks ago
That might not work out so great.

From Apple’s Website:

The weather data used in the Weather app comes from The Weather Channel.

From the NYT today:

The Weather Channel app’s parent company, for example, analyzed users’ location data for hedge funds ('https://web.archive.org/web/20180731211011/https://business.weather.com/writable/documents/Financial-Markets/InvestorInsights_SolutionSheet.pdf'), according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles this year ('https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/03/technology/weather-channel-app-lawsuit.html') that was triggered by Times reporting.

What else did they do with it?



I’ll just stick with default Apple apps from now on then.

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Read this:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/19/opinion/location-tracking-privacy-tips.html


Does "while using the app" include when the app is in the background? Most people don't close their apps.

Rating: 3 Votes
10 weeks ago
Look I get it no one should be tracked and all their data location or otherwise should be private unless you give it up yourself. That's a given. But, the balls on news sites and sites like this that write stories and call out privacy and tracking issues. They are the some of the biggest culprits of them all. Tracking location, clicks on pages, how long you're on the page. It's all BS and when you do this comparison they are always like oh well we don't use it in a bad way...
Rating: 3 Votes

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