location data pings

Every minute, everywhere, activity of millions of people is tracked by smartphones and this information is stored in gigantic data files and one such file is obtained by New York Times Privacy Project. This data file is by far the largest and most sensitive as per review by tech journalists. It contains more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans. This data shows precise location of every single smartphone over a period of several months during 2016 and 2017. 

Why is it too serious to care about?

This data holds information in so much depth that it makes your life an open book. The companies holding this data can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor. 

The reviewers of this data found hundreds of pings in mosques and churches, abortion clinics, queer spaces and other sensitive areas. Such data could even risk someone’s life like survivors of abuse. They were even able to track powerful government officials, their commute, their vacation destinations everything.  

Satellite Imagery Credit: Microsoft | Green dots shows location data pings at Central Park, New York

Your daily commute schedule can be easily figured out possibly seeming to be a potential threat. Your most personal or secret things, for which you can pay anything to keep them secrets, can be revealed. Anyone can plot criminal intentions against you with such detailed data. Moreover, the data can further be resold, copied, pirated and abused. There’s no way you can ever retrieve it. 

Who collects this data?

A number of location data companies silently collect location data through a number of mobile apps that access your location. The location sharing is almost real time that happens in milliseconds to these app servers. This is how, for example, you might see an ad for a new car sometime after walking through a dealership. Some large telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T have been selling location data to third parties for years and they further sell this data to anyone paying well to these companies without caring about the harm that could be done to the users because there is no law till now that prohibits them from doing so. 

What do they do with this data?

As already told that this data pool is so huge that it can be used in any malicious way by anyone who is looking to draw benefit out of it by manipulating the users who generate this data. It is the holy grail for marketers. They observe the shopping behavior by tracking the complete journey of a consumer from seeing an ad to buying a product and then uses it to advertise them according to their behavior.  

How this data is collected?

Location data is transferred from your phone through software development kits (SDKs) which are small computer programs used to build features within an app. App developer develop location tracking programs and integrate in to the mobile apps. Huge monetary benefit is associated with this business. 

Everyone knows that each smartphone is embedded with a number of sensors to implement some cool features in the smartphone but these sensors are the one that contribute to project your exact location. 

  • Compass: Also known as Magnetometer, your phone’s compass can track your location relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. 
  • GPS: The Global Positioning System uses signals from various satellites to establish the user’s location. Many phones can accept signals, as well, from different services, including Russia’s GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo and China’s BeiDou.  
  • Gyroscope: This device determines how a phone is positioned in three-dimensional space. 
  • Accelerometer: This sensor reports how fast your phone is moving in a linear pattern. 

There are a number of other ways that are used by fraudsters to hack your personal data from your smartphone. Read here quickly.

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