Cell phone tracking has gone from is it happening, to who is doing it? After all that has come out in the news it has become very clear that the data on our phones is being captured by third parties. Apps, websites, search engines, even governments, are observing our lives through the digital footprints we leave behind.
When it comes to commercial third parties that are collecting information on us to determine our purchasing patterns, they look at a variety of information. Knowing the type of device you are using, what websites you are browsing and for how long, what you purchase, and where you are when you’re doing all this. The more information they can collect about you the more accurately they can profile you with similar users and sell you to advertisers. If you frequently browse for movies on your phone in the evening, they can target you with an advertisement for the Netflix right there on your phone. This type of targeted advertising is becoming more and more popular and as the demand increases, companies are finding more and more ways to track users.
If you are on a computer surfing the web you are being tracked through cookies. These are small packets of data that collect your activity on a website. When you visit a site and it remembers your credit card, address, or username, it’s because the first time you used the website a cookie was sent to your computer that stored all that information when you entered it.
On you mobile device, tracking happens a bit differently although there also are cookies. Much of the data sold to advertisers come from apps. When you download and install them you accept certain terms which often give the app access to your GPS location, contacts, phone usage details, a whole wealth of information. After collecting the data, it is anonymized before being sold to advertisers. This is to “protect” the privacy of the users, but isn’t it too late by then? They may remove my name and other identifying details from GPS locations, but those locations themselves are identifying. Earlier this year a study found that with as little as 3 GPS data points you could identify an individual. And if you tag yourself at restaurants or events on social media, this “anonymous” data can quickly be matched back to a person.
The way I see it, the second my information is collected I have lost some privacy. Making it anonymous before using or selling it doesn’t make me rest easy. The more information collected on any anonymous user, the less anonymous they become. I find myself hesitating more and more when interested in downloading an app or turning on location services for something. Is it really worth the loss in privacy? For now it still comes down to the individual app. If it wants my GPS location I tend not to download it, but for those I do download, I feel a bit better knowing that it can’t track me 24/7 since I use a SilentPocket radio frequency blocking case for my phone. Hopefully companies will become more transparent in why they are collecting data and what they do with it. Until then, I’m more concerned about the privacy I may lose, than the benefits the service can provide.