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

(View all)
Avatar
16 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
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
16 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.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
16 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.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
16 weeks ago
Ok. Whatever. Everyone is tracked nowadays. Big surprise. Apple tracks our location too. To believe otherwise is naive
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
16 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.
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
16 weeks ago
Does "while using the app" include when the app is in the background? Most people don't close their apps.
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

Leaker Claims New 13-inch MacBook Pro Coming as Soon as Next Month

Monday April 6, 2020 2:56 am PDT by Tim Hardwick
Apple will announce a new 13-inch MacBook Pro in May with the codename J223, according to a rumor shared by YouTuber and leaker Jon Prosser. Note: it’s a refresh to the current 13” So the bigger 14” display upgrade is a big possibility— Jon Prosser (@jon_prosser) April 4, 2020 Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has said Apple plans to release new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models with scissor keyboards ...

iOS 14 Could Offer Home Screen Widgets, Wallpaper Customizations

Saturday April 4, 2020 3:30 pm PDT by Frank McShan
iOS 14 could offer home screen widgets and wallpaper customizations for the first time, according to 9to5Mac and Twitter user DongleBookPro. Apple is reportedly working to implement widgets that can be moved freely around like icons on the iPhone and iPad homescreen for the very first time. The feature is reportedly codenamed "Avocado" and no other details are available. It was also...

'Leaked' Images Allegedly Show iPhone 12 With Smaller Notch, Rear Camera Redesign, and Home Screen Widgets

Tuesday April 7, 2020 4:28 am PDT by Tim Hardwick
Two images shared on social media this morning are currently stoking speculation about possible hardware redesigns coming to the iPhone 12 and the potential introduction of Home screen widgets in iOS 14. Shared by Twitter user Fudge (choco_bit), the images depict a front and rear graphical representation of a smartphone with interface elements on the screen, suggesting it came out of a...

More References to Apple's Upcoming Low-Cost iPhone Appear Online

Monday April 6, 2020 4:38 am PDT by Tim Hardwick
Further references to Apple's upcoming low-cost iPhone have appeared online, one on a Chinese e-commerce website and another on Verizon's smartphone trade-in page. Spotted by tech blog MySmartPrice, Chinese retailer JD.com has published a placeholder for Apple's so-called "iPhone 9" that includes a teaser image of a veiled smartphone, but other than that it lacks any particularly revealing...

The New York Times, IFTTT, Medium, and Other Apps Adopt Sign in With Apple Ahead of June 30 Deadline

Sunday April 5, 2020 7:08 pm PDT by Frank McShan
Apps with sign-in functionality, including The New York Times, IFTTT, Medium, and more, have continued to adopt Apple's secure Sign in with Apple feature ahead of a deadline of June 30. The deadline for these apps to support the feature was recently extended from April 30. Sign in with Apple, first introduced in iOS 13, allows users to create accounts for apps and websites using an Apple ID. ...

Some Users Experiencing System Crashes on macOS 10.15.4, Especially During Large File Transfers

Monday April 6, 2020 8:17 am PDT by Joe Rossignol
A sizeable number of Mac users are experiencing occasional system crashes after updating to macOS Catalina version 10.15.4, released a few weeks ago. The crashing issue appears to be most prominent when users attempt to make large file transfers. In a forum post, SoftRAID described the issue as a bug and said that it is working with Apple engineers on a fix for macOS 10.15.5, or a...

Apple Releases iOS and iPadOS 13.4.1 With Fix for FaceTime Bug

Tuesday April 7, 2020 10:06 am PDT by Juli Clover
Apple today released iOS and iPadOS 13.4.1, minor updates that come two weeks after the release of iOS and iPadOS 13.4, major updates that introduced iCloud Folder Sharing, a new Mail toolbar, trackpad support for the iPad, and more. The iOS and ‌iPadOS‌ 13.4.1 updates are available on all eligible devices over-the-air in the Settings app. To access the updates, go to Settings > General...

Top Stories: Apple Leaks iPhone SE and AirTags, Apple Buys Dark Sky, and More

Saturday April 4, 2020 6:00 am PDT by MacRumors Staff
With the calendar rolling over to April this week, we yet again saw several leaks and rumors, most notably including Apple itself leaking some references to a pair of long-rumored products: a new budget iPhone SE and AirTags item trackers. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Apple also acquired popular weather app Dark Sky, while Amazon's Prime Video app now allows...

Apple Reportedly Targeting WWDC for Over-Ear Headphones Launch, New 'AirPods X' Later in the Year

Tuesday April 7, 2020 7:00 am PDT by Eric Slivka
Rumors of Apple-branded over-ear headphones have been circulating for quite some time, while more recent rumors have mentioned an "AirPods Pro Lite" that could also be in the works, and Twitter leaker Jon Prosser's recent foray into Apple rumors provides a bit more detail on what we might able to expect for these products. Current Beats Studio3 Wireless and BeatsX On the over-ear side,...

Apple Donating Over 20 Million Masks to Healthcare Professionals, Producing Face Shields With Suppliers

Sunday April 5, 2020 2:51 pm PDT by Joe Rossignol
Apple CEO Tim Cook today shared a video message with an update on the company's response to the ongoing pandemic. Cook said Apple has now sourced over 20 million masks that it is in the process of donating to healthcare professionals around the world. Apple is working with governments to ensure that the masks are donated to the places of greatest need. Cook added that Apple's design,...