How the smartphone location feature can be used to track individuals

As researchers and journalists try to comprehend how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting on people’s conduct, they have frequently banked on location information from cell phones. The information permits an extensive check at the movements of millions of people but builds difficult questions concerning privacy.


In numerous articles, The New York Times has made use of location data given by a firm called Cuebiq, which examines data for advertisers and marketers. This information comes from smartphone users who have accepted to share their locations with specific apps, including the ones that give weather alerts or details on local gas stations. Cuebiq supports app makers make use of technology such as GPS to identify the location of user’s phones, and in return, several app makers give data to Cuebiq for it to analyze. 


This information obtained by The Times is anonymized and summed, meaning that the journalists study a wide range of statistics compiled as per geographic area — like the median distance moved each day by devices in a census tract. The Times did not get any information concerning individual smartphones and did not track the path any particular phone took.


Nearly 15 million people in the United States use the concerned apps daily and even allow them to trace their location on a regular basis. The aggregate data gives a representative example of the population, as per academic papers that studied Cuebiq’s data in various metro regions. 


Even though this data does not include names, phone numbers, and different elements of identifying information, still anonymous location information can be disclosing. The Times has indicated the officiousness of such information, which reveals personal details such as information related to trips to doctor’s offices and outings with romantic partners.


The real fact that many firms are accumulating, storing, and selling location information concerning individuals at all specified risks. Cybercriminals or people with access to unfiltered location information could determine or follow a person without permission, by pinpointing, for instance, which smartphone more often spent time at that individual’s home address.


Various companies have hugely diversifying approaches to handling the information, deleting large chunks of it for privacy reasons, or even selling the raw data with no privacy concerns or selling the raw information with absolutely no protection. Location data on people is used for purposes such as marketing and analysis for hedge funds and law enforcement. There is no federal law in the United States that restricts the use of location data in this manner, even though some have been proposed. Cuebiq stated that it gathers and stores raw location data but does not sell it off.

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