Location-tracking lets developers build fast, useful, personalized apps. They’re enticing, but they come with tradeoffs: your gadgets and apps maintain a log of where you’ve been and what you’re doing, and more of them than you think are sharing that data with others.
It’s going to advertisers, mostly, so they can lure you into the Starbucks a block away or the merch tent at Coachella. It’s as creepy as any other targeted marketing, but most of us have come to accept that it comes with the territory. Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says it goes deeper. Your data might get sold to your credit reporting agency, which wants to know more about you as it determines your credit score. It might go to your insurance company, which is very interested in your whereabouts. It might be subpoenaed by the government, for just about any reason. Maybe none of that is happening. Maybe all of it is. There’s really no way for us to know…
Your phone’s ability to pinpoint your exact location and use that info to deliver services—a meal, a ride, a tip, a coupon—is reason for excitement. But this world of always-on GPS raises questions about what happens to our data. How much privacy are we willing to surrender? What can these services learn about our activities? What keeps detailed maps of our lives from being sold to the highest bidder? These have been issues as long as we’ve had cellphones, but they are more pressing than ever.
Another major trade-off that I suspect most users will make without much fuss in the coming years. The cynical take on the advantages for the user is that this is primarily about customizable marketing that can account for both your individual traits and where exactly you are. In other words, sharing location data will give consumers new opportunities. More consumerism! On the flip side, it is less clear how or when location data might be used against you. But, when it is, it probably won’t be good.
The broader issue here is whether people should have geographical freedom that is not known to others. This is increasingly difficult in today’s world even as we would celebrate the mobility Americans have within their own communities, country, and to travel throughout the world.