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Companies use smartphone locations to help advertisers and even hedge funds (nytimes.com)
448 points by pcl 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 169 comments



iOS now forcing "While Using" option on all apps is the greatest thing ever. Before this, some apps where forcing the "Always" option on users. Uber and Waze come to mind.

iOS also gives you a warning from time to time about apps using your location in the background. I think iOS right now has the best location management.

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People are surprised when seeing the Activity section in Google's account details, then freak out about Google tracking their location. At the very least Google is being transparent about it and gives you the option to turn that shit off.

Also I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Google Maps now remembers searches you've made without location history or app activity tracking being active. This wasn't the case about a year ago, when I last tried it, a dark pattern of sorts. They probably changed the behavior being forced by the GDPR or something similar.

So if you haven't done so, turn off "Location History" in your Google account: https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols (I turn everything off and I don't see a difference in usability)

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On the article, I love the maps and the animations. Visualization is the best way to make people understand the threat.

On GDPR, I've seen people complaining about the high cost for implementing it, however for privacy it is a godsend.


You can't turn it 'off', you can 'pause' it. That's a linguistic difference, sure, but it is quite telling that there is no respect at all for a users desires even in the language that is hardcoded in. It's as annoying as 'not now' for 'no' or '10 different things you should know about "x"', when you really should not.


I think 'pause' is a better word than 'off'. The reason is that a person is more likely to think that turning 'off' location history deletes the old location history, which it does not. 'Pause' makes this differences clearer to the user who might not be as familiar with technology.


> 'Pause' makes this differences clearer to the user who might not be as familiar with technology.

I'd love for the Googles of this world to really make things easier for people not as familiar with technology. For instance lightswitches do not have a pause button.


To be fair, nor do they have a history. Though simplification can make things easier, it can also result in obfuscation, and it's often not obvious which is the better bargain in general.


Historically they didn't have a history, but there are "smart grid" electric meters that track energy usage on a smaller time scale, and privacy is an issue for those.

If the lights in your living room total up to 85.5W, someone with access to fine grained power consumption logs can infer when you turned that light switch on or off.

Similarly, there's going to be a telltale power consumption profile for when you're in the shower, when you run your washing machine, when you turn on your television, etc.

This isn't widespread, but it's something to look out for going forward.


This is exactly what sense does https://sense.com/


I agree, the language is annoying and they've also been guilty of dark patterns for getting users to re-enable it.

But being an EU citizen, I'm confident that they can't turn it on, legally, without explicit permission.


They can't legally, but for them to stop someone has to go through the process of proving this in court.


Where I live there are consumer protection state agencies that handle the suing for you, if the case is strong enough. You just have to file a complaint and I've had great success in the past.

And GDPR is taken seriously, the EU requiring and sponsoring agencies that check for compliance in all EU countries.

Don't know how it is in the U.S. but I imagine that at the very least you can group with others in class action lawsuits, such that the effort of any one individual will be lower.

As long as it is illegal of course, otherwise you don't have a case. I heard California is adopting something similar to the GDPR too.


In Hungary for instance, one can simply send an e-mail with the necessary details of the complaint to NAIH, the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and within the legally mandated period of 60 days, they will carry out the necessary investigation and enforce both national law and GDPR.


Where is the "pause" wording?


https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols

All over the page.

Paused this, paused that.


For those still wondering: the word "pause" appears in the pop-up information window when you toggle off one of the activities and appears next to "paused" activities.


Thanks; I was reading the docs, which do say "turn off".

https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/3118687?visit_id=...


>On GDPR, I've seen people complaining about the high cost for implementing it

The bigger cost is to people's privacy, which is hard to quantify and hard for people to articulate why it's necessary. Collection and use of people's data is opaque and not at all transparent.

Which is why GDPR and other privacy legislation is needed.


Complaining about the cost of respecting user privacy is like complaining about having to clean up after your company's pollution or carbon emissions.


If carriers let outsiders buy cell tower data there is literally nothing you can do except switch on airplane mode.



Or, complain to the local gov't/FCC/consumer ombudsman that carriers are selling this data without consent from the consumer. Embroil them in a PR nightmare. Make it costly.


It doesn't need to come from the towers as we recently saw from the whole Qualcomm thing. There's not really any use burying a Chinese company in a "PR nightmare", because A. they don't care and B. if it becomes a real problem they will resurface with a different name. That being the case, you can of course fight here for a meaningless victory. I cannot imagine a reason to, however.


Honestly do you expect that the US will ever embrace consumer rights?

Anyway I just get cynical when I see people talk about how evil Google is and how Apple protects privacy. Every company you do business with WILL sell of your personal data and that includes mobile operators, banks and ISPs. Until that is illegal the entire discussion about privacy is irrelevant and a sham.


Strange, for me Google maps doesn't remember anything I searched for. It tells me to turn on location history. And I'm an EU citizen.

Google can fuck right off with their location tracking. When I got my phone, it defaulted to asking me invasive questions about places I was visiting. The option to turn off those nag screens was hidden so deeply I felt compelled to neuter the entire shebang. Disgusting dark patterns.

Screenshot taken just now: https://imgur.com/a/ewSCeRn

My next phone will be an Apple device due to this insidious crap.


My next phone will be an Apple device due to this insidious crap.

This kind of insidious crap is the reason I've never considered Android as an option.

I have two Android devices for work, and they both stay in my work desk drawer. I'd never take them off campus.


> Also I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Google Maps now remembers searches you've made without location history or app activity tracking being active. This wasn't the case about a year ago, when I last tried it, a dark pattern of sorts. They probably changed the behavior being forced by the GDPR or something similar.

Location history wasn't ever needed for remembering searches, FWIW.


> Location history wasn't ever needed for remembering searches

It absolutely was. When I tapped on the search bar, there were no results and it told me to turn on location history.


Just tried this. I have "home" and "work" defined in Saved Places, but if I go to the search bar there are "home" and "work" options which claim not to be set up and won't work until I turn on "web and app history". Hmm.


On iOS, location history absolutely was not required for this. Either its different on android google maps, or you're conflating web and app activity with location history.


Google Maps used to display a message "please log in to see recent searches" or something like this. Which is ridiculous, there's nothing preventing them from storing search history on the device.

It was really annoying, because there is no back button in the app, so if you search for your hotel, then for a restaurant, and then want to show the hotel again, you had to type the full address again.

They seem to have stopped doing that, it's now possible to use Google Maps on iOS without signing in, and you still see recent searches.

They still display a message "sign in to get better search results". And a second message: "Add your phone contacts to search for their addresses". But it's a lot better than it used to be.


Nonetheless, I actually don’t enjoy seeing my search history accumulate on my device. Half of my searches are just spell checks anyway, the next 40% are just wikipedia shortcuts. Probably less than one in ten searches are genuine queries, to scour for a real result.

The number is small enough that I pretty much can directly remember the thing I was thinking about, and why I searched for it. I don’t even want my device saving my recent searches.


Your preference is not very relevant for people that need to remember their searches though.


People that need to remember their searches should configure their preferences in such a fashion.


Let's not talk past each other. An app can remember preferences and searches locally, without synchronizing them to a central server. Requiring that the server remembers those searches only if you agree to having your activity tracked is a dark pattern.

Which is what we are talking about.


And this is very much still present in the latest version on my iPhone anyway. I still see a big prompt to turn on Web & App Activity I order to “Get the most from Maps” — which includes saving “Work” and “Home” favorites. Boo :-(


You don't see that prompt if you aren't signed in.


Son of a .... &%$!


This is about location search history in Google Maps, though, not general search history. Personally, I rarely need the latter but I find the former very useful.


> At the very least Google is being transparent about it and gives you the option to turn that shit off

I thought I had turned it off. But I'm also using Google Fit, that somehow stores location history even if you've turned it off in maps. There's no way to turn it off.

Even better, when you try to delete the 'Location' data through the google settings, you'll get an 'An error was encountered while deleting data form Fit' (https://twitter.com/belloaleksander/status/10700087909074452...)


I at least get a substantial value add to my life having Google track me everywhere. It might be overly sentimental but being able to see everywhere I've been in the last ~seven years on Maps feels to me like one of the great innovations Google has made. If people accept Google will sell that data to subsidize the cost of persisting it you get a permanent record of everywhere you've gone. I think its cool to have.

Its something you can probably build off the shelf - log position with durations, draw vectors on Open Street Maps. But Google has already given me the convenience in exchange for my privacy. Its one of the rare times I'm alright with that tradeoff.


being able to see everywhere I've been in the last ~seven years on Maps feels to me like one of the great innovations Google has made.

Your phone is perfectly capable of making this map on its own. Why does it have to share all that information with the Google mothership?

Apple's phones do the same thing, but don't send your personal location history to Apple. (Though I believe the history isn't a full seven years.)


I haven't used the same phone for 7 years. The value add is that its automatic and remotely archived. I've already been burned by lost / wiped / bricked devices without recovering all the photos / video / data on it before it became inoperable. I still have an iphone 3gs with my last photos with my late grandmother on it that I've tried to frankenstein back to life long enough over a usb connection to just grab the photos with no success.

I've tried a lot of automatic backup solutions like syncthing but have had myriad performance or inconsistency problems over the years.

Its tied to my Google account rather than the physical device, and its not data I need to manually somehow keep consistent across devices because Google does it for me.


Stating it as a direct trade for the service being no charge is fallacious in that Google does not actually give you the option to just pay money for the service/storage and skip the surveillance. Instead, the true price remains nebulous - with your "permanent record" continuing to grow and becoming ever more of a liability.

It's certainly possible to develop user-centric software with the same functionality and polish, at a grassroots level. The fact that the industry is being dominated by VC money looking for scalable winner-takes-all growth is indicative of the magnitude of what's really at stake.


I run Lineage on my phones, I always have the option to purge Google entirely and not let them track me. The choice is between spying vs money, its between spying or not being spied on.

I sympathize with the plight of those unknowingly being spied upon - I've had enlightening conversations with family members when I show them this very feature they weren't aware of on their Android devices - but it often feels like the demonization of Google treats it like nobody ever volunteers in. Because I definitely wouldn't pay for it, but its a nice service to have.


I love that Google Photos is able to add location information to my old photos and pictures I take on my actual camera without manually mapping everything. It's surprisingly accurate and really enjoy seeing where all I've been over time.


I love that Google Photos is able to add location information to my old photos and pictures I take on my actual camera without manually mapping everything. It's surprisingly accurate and really enjoy seeing where all I've been over time.

Apple's phones and computers do this, too. This is not unique to Google. What is unique to Google is that Google uses the information to profile you, while Apple just uses the information to draw a map.


if anyone wants to track your life without divulging it all to google, check out the memex that andrew louis built in ruby: http://confreaks.tv/videos/rubyconf2018-building-a-memex-wit...


I respectfully disagree on Google being entirely transparent about tracking location, especially if you run Android + Google Play Services. I have a tablet (Pixel C) that runs LineageOS + Google Play Services and a Phone (Nexus 5x) that runs LineageOS vanilla (no MicroG, no UnifiedNLP, no Google Play Services). Some things I have noted:

- When you install MicroG/Google Play Services, they take over location services (i.e. they run in /system/priv-app, and if you disable their location, location on the device is disabled totally).

- Android by default has the default on option to scan wifi and Bluetooth when you turn them off to find wifi/bluetooth and coorelate it to your location.

- On my Pixel C, when if I try "high accuracy" or "battery saver" mode Location services, Google Play has tried to force me to agree to their location tracking and I have disagreed every single time. Location services does not work if I use "device only" (which is supposed to only use GPS).

- I have noted that on my phone now, if I disable location and then reenable it when I have moved more than 20-30 miles, the GPS has to reacquire the signal and can take up to 2 minutes (I also tried it when I drove several hundred miles, it took several minutes to reacquire). This is indicative of the GPS module being off totally. This was not so when it had Google Play Services on, it was able to reacquire my location extremely quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously even if I moved a long distance. I suspect that Google Play was still tracking my location even if I turned off location services (due to it totally controlling my location).

- EDIT: Another interesting note is that on my phone has had location services off and then turned just back on (i.e. no GPS lock), it appears to give the last time GPS was acquired as my current location. OSMAnd shows that location but says it doesn't know my location, but other apps do not realize that. I am suspecting that Android does not necessarily have a "stale" location, just the last reported location.

Putting my tin foil hat, I hypothesize Google anonymously tracks your location even if your location services if off (allowing them to do traffic, how busy a restaurant is, etc.).

EDIT: As correctly pointed out, networked assisted GPS is a thing, and may also play into the differences in GPS reacquiring. I believe that network assisted GPS is in AOSP. When I turn on and off GPS in Android, it appears to have the almanac for where to look for satellites based on SatStat, and how quickly my phone acquires the GPS signal is a function of where it used to be compared to where it is now. In addition, UnifiedNLP [1] scans for networks/cell towers and correlates it to location, it does not appear to implement networked assisted GPS. [1] https://github.com/microg/android_packages_apps_UnifiedNlp


>if I disable location and then reenable it when I have moved more than 20-30 miles, the GPS has to reacquire the signal and can take up to 2 minutes (I also tried it when I drove several hundred miles, it took several minutes to reacquire). This is indicative of the GPS module being off totally. This was not so when it had Google Play Services on, it was able to reacquire my location extremely quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously even if I moved a long distance. I suspect that Google Play was still tracking my location even if I turned off location services

This is more likely access to network assisted GPS.

To know your location, the receiver needs the GPS ephemeris and almanac data (basically the status/location/trajectories of the GPS satellites). This is transmitted by the satellites themselves, but extremely slowly (50 bps with the entire navigation message taking 12.5 minutes)#.

To speed things up substantially (almost instant vs minutes), this info can be delivered over the network instead. I presume that in your case it was being provided over the network as part of the Play services.

# https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPS_signals#Navigation_message


Heh, interesting. My assumption is that even network assisted GPS is a part of AOSP versus Play Service. This assumption was that UnifiedNLP [1] scans for networks/cell towers and correlates it to location, it does not appear to implement networked assisted GPS.

[1] https://github.com/microg/android_packages_apps_UnifiedNlp


To know your location, the receiver needs the GPS ephemeris and almanac data (basically the status/location/trajectories of the GPS satellites). This is transmitted by the satellites themselves, but extremely slowly (50 bps with the entire navigation message taking 12.5 minutes)

Thanks for explaining that. It explains why when I interfaced a GPS receiver yanked out of a 2001 minivan it took so long to lock into a location with my Palm Pilot.


>Putting my tin foil hat, I hypothesize Google anonymously tracks your location even if your location services if off (allowing them to do traffic, how busy a restaurant is, etc.).

This has already been reported.

https://qz.com/1131515/google-collects-android-users-locatio...


A-GPS is a feature. It exists because GPS is so slow.


Also because GPS is unreliable in cities with tall buildings that obscure the satellites. This is important in the case of needing to make a 911 call. I don't know what the laws are around mobile phones needing to be able to place a 911 call (I know you shouldn't have to guess a passcode to do it, or at least that used to be the case), but it's possible that some of these 'location-on' things are to comply with the law.


Indeed. When I visited New York and Chicago I was surprised to find that GPS is totally unreliable. I would find myself walking several street corners without getting a signal.

I'm used to European cities, crowded, but without skyscrapers and in my city GPS is very reliable, but I realized that's only because we don't have tall buildings.


Luckily WiFi based location is usually shockingly accurate.


Not to mention they buried their option to turn off location tracking on Google Maps within some legal submenu in the app, instead of in the privacy settings menu. If that qualifies as "transparent" I don't know what the word means anymore.


The technical need for assisted GPS notwithstanding..:

> - Android by default has the default on option to scan wifi and Bluetooth when you turn them off to find wifi/bluetooth and coorelate it to your location.

What the actual fuck?!



Nice, thanks!


> People are surprised when seeing the Activity section in Google's account details, then freak out about Google tracking their location.

For the curious:

https://www.google.com/maps/timeline


“We’re not doing anything not disclosed in our terms of service.” is rapidly becoming a no longer acceptable answer to consumers.

Don’t tell me a weather app needs to know my location all the time to give me the best weather info then sell my location to the highest bidder. Don’t tell me that buried in some 20 pages of leagalese in your Ts&Cs is some vague references that make this “legal.”


I would respectfully disagree.

It is not acceptable to roughly the amount of people (and I include myself) who make a deliberate and self conscious decision to oppose it.

This is a small, small group. I have a phone with Replicant OS, which puts me within a niche group of an already niche group (those willing to install alternative OS and strip Google on their phone). In a wider computing sense - what percentage of HN use GNU/Linux? Of them, who runs as fully Free OS? What percentage of them are rocking a 12y.o. librebooted thinkpad?

The general public are apathetic at best. Contrary to popular opinion, people are not ignorant to the behaviour of tech giants - they just don't care enough to stop. Clearly, it is still an acceptable answer to consumers.

It's like claiming that people don't go vegetarian or vegan because they aren't aware of the suffering. Of course they are aware. It's just easier to keep eating hamburgers and live with the cognitive dissonance.

It's the same with these apps.


> Contrary to popular opinion, people are not ignorant to the behaviour of tech giants - they just don't care enough to stop.

Contrary to your* opinion, people do care enough to stop but they don't know how. Tech giants have insinuated themselves into literally every aspect of their lives by abusing the lack of knowledge of the users. Now, they don't see a way out without drastic change.

How can you get a job if you don't have a phone? How can you get a job when literally every affordable phone tracks you?

Even my apartment complex online portal tracks me. What the flying fuck?

The only way to actively stop is to not have any computing device whatsoever. Good luck living in a modern world like that: even then there's still facial tracking and vehicle tracking.

People that say that consumers don't care enough to stop is living in their own bubble insulated from real people.


>people do care enough to stop but they don't know how

I'd guess the vast majority of HN users will be primarily users of Windows/Mac OS and proprietary software. Many HN users will use GMail, Google Maps, Google Play Services... an so on.

Are we going to pretend that your average HN user doesn't understand the pros/cons of their software choices? Personally, I'd prefer to credit them with the intelligence to have made a balance and reasoned decision (albeit one I fundamentally disagree with).

This trickles down to less tech savvy users too. Many of my colleagues in Medicine are more than aware of such issues due to rules and regulation on data storage and the like. They know, for example, why patient data should never be on Google Drive or GMail. They still continue to use those services for personal use, despite being aware, because they simply aren't sufficiently motivated to change their habits. GMail is familiar, and hence easy, so why switch to ProtonMail (for example)?

>How can you get a job if you don't have a phone? How can you get a job when literally every affordable phone tracks you?

I have a very good career and have used Replicant OS and Lineage OS. I now use a dumbphone because I dislike smartphones for other reasons. There are many, many successful people who can function perfectly well without the latest iPhone.

>People that say that consumers don't care enough to stop is living in their own bubble insulated from real people.

Please don't resort to ad hominem attacks on Hacker News. It is uncalled for, and there are more appropriate ways to put your point across.


> Are we going to pretend that your average HN user doesn't understand the pros/cons of their software choices?

I am not pretending that the average HN doesn't understand the pros/cons of their software choices. I own my own domain and with it I provide my own email, calendar, and the like. It's nowhere near as simple as it could or should be. It increases the barrier to entry in both cognition and technology required while hiding the actual cost of the decision to offload that data to a third party.

> They still continue to use those services, despite being aware, because they simply aren't sufficiently motivated to change their habits.

Again: bubble. Is it that they're insufficiently motivated to change their habits? Or is it that they've been trained (whether personally, or educationally, or through another employer) for something easier and haven't been given a solution just as easy?

> GMail is familiar, and hence easy, so why switch to ProtonMail (for example)?

For me, personally: both of them are off-site and not owned by me. For many others: they don't know of ProtonMail. For many of them: they can't afford ProtonMail.

> There are many, many successful people who can function perfectly well without the latest iPhone.

I wasn't talking just about phones. Computers, even your employer's computer, can track you; my employer uses GSuite.

> Please don't resort to ad hominem attacks on Hacker News.

I don't believe this was an ad hominem attack; I believe it was an observation.


> I now use a dumbphone because I dislike smartphones for other reasons. There are many, many successful people who can function perfectly well without the latest iPhone.

I'm curious - how do you handle navigation (both in car and on foot) with a smartphone?


Without a smartphone?

In the car I have a Garmin satnav unit which I can use. They are great quality and I paid about £20 or 30 for it used. I strongly dislike this modern trend for using phones in cars. They are too distracting (I hate this modern trend of huge tablet interfaces in cars for the same reason).

On foot... I honestly don't need maps that much. I struggle to recall ever needing to have live directions while walking. I have a good in-built navigation brain through - probably from growing up doing lots of hiking, orienteering, and so on. I also think that reliance on blindly following a screen stunts the development of such skills. I find I have a very good mental map of my city compared to younger friends.

I spent my teens and 20s without technology like this. I find it quite depressing when this question gets raised.


In the EU, there is this legal concept of "informed consent" that was implemented in the GDPR.

It hasn't been tested much in court yet, but the theory is that users should actually understand what the "deal" between them and the company is when they "agree" to those terms of service.

It seems pretty reasonable to me, otherwise stuff like slavery could also be brought back hidden in companies' ToS.


> It's the same with these apps.

Not really. I agree that people accept it to some degree (I'd say out of helplessness), but that doesn't mean regular people expect a random free weather app is going to pawn off all all their contacts list to random scoundrels.


Holy cow, you are using a phone without GPS? https://redmine.replicant.us/projects/replicant/wiki/Replica...


I previously used a Galaxy S3 with Replicant OS. I also have a Sony phone with Lineage OS (with no Google). I now use a dumbphone as I don't particularly like smartphones. This decision is less driven by security and more a desire to ringfence time away from tech.

Personally, I was never bothered by the lack of GPS. I'm fine with offline maps. I have a satnav in the car which is the only time I really need minute-by-minute navigation.

I found the lack of WiFi to be a bigger issue. Mostly as I like podcasts. There is/was an option to use a WiFi adapter which works well if you plan in advance (i.e. use it when downloading a bunch of apps when setting up, or downloading a bunch of podcasts in one go).

Replicant OS is a really neat project, and they deserve some praise.


Everyone has their own use case. But, yeah, I am pretty sure I'd just go back to a feature phone if I couldn't have GPS.


> The general public are apathetic at best.

They are not and impact and buzz around articles like this show it. General public does not know enough about technology to understand the ramifications of what they do. For some it might be shocking to know it is this easy to reuse location data for other purposes, or that by mixing different data points, you can de-anonymize pretty much anyone. These are concepts that are clear when you work with or like technology, but are not natural and need to be explained and learned.


Not sure if I agree. Dark Sky likes to have your location all the time because it enriches the data for everybody else. The promise not to ever sell our data, but they do say they are approached usually at least once a week about selling it https://blog.darksky.net/location-privacy/


Freakonomics did an episode not too long ago with the new CEO of Ford. The guy was practically salivating at the mouth about all the data new vehicles will be collecting and how Ford could potentially monetize it all. Scary times ahead.


I submitted that article on HN but it didn't get any attraction.

It seems Ford CEO thinks they can collect and monetize drivers data: -- So the case I would make is that we have as much data in the future coming from vehicles, or from users in those vehicles, or from cities talking to those vehicles, as the other competitors that you and I would be talking about that have monetizable attraction.

--The issue in the vehicle, see, is: we already know and have data on our customers. By the way, we protect this securely; they trust us. We know what people make. How do we know that? It’s because they borrow money from us. And when you ask somebody what they make, we know where they work; we know if they’re married. We know how long they’ve lived in their house, because these are all on the credit applications. We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that. And that’s the leverage we’ve got here with the data.


Struggling to find this article - could you link me to it?


Can an Industrial Giant Become a Tech Darling? (Ep. 357)

http://freakonomics.com/podcast/ford/


Ok listened to it, finally.

It really comes across that he doesn't understand what he's talking about around tech. "Transportation Operating System"? It's cargo-culted technobabble.

But yes it did veer in to the creepy side there


It is a smart business move as there is money to be made.

Insurance companies did it first by offering dongles that you can plug into your OBDII that would basically feed your driving data back to them.

I agree that it is scary and just feels not right. General population is so ignorant these days that most honestly don't care. They will just accept these things.

This data will be valuable to insurance companies, government, car manufacturers and who knows how else it could be used. You can literally tell who made a modification to their car and read all the data from the vehicle.....meh, future sucks.

One day we will wake up when we have zero freedom, all of our moves will be tracked...and we won't be able to have any privacy at all.


That's a very bad heuristic to use for whether something's a good business decision...


Hedge funds have been using location data to ‘predict’ corporate earnings for at least 5 years, that I know of. There’s also speculation that they use the data to identify locations of VIPs and where they’re going (by clustering activities of the VIP’s entourage). It’s unfortunate that news organizations as reputable and prominent as the NYT only get on these stories so late in the game. This information would have been more useful to the public back in 2013.

What I don’t understand is why these types of activities by hedge funds aren’t considered insider trading.


Because the hedge funds are by definition not insiders? They are literally not using non-public corporate data at all.

Insider trading laws don’t exist to make sure there isn’t information assymetry, the market is all about that assymetry. Insider trading laws are about insiders stealing from other shareholders.


Well, it is non-public data. I once spoke with a lawyer to see if I could legally use location data to do the same thing (for instance, it’s easy to correlate changes in activity at certain retailers with quarterly earnings), and I was told it’s risky.


Non-public and insider are two different concepts. I could send a satellite to space, take pictures of parking lots, count cars, and it'd be a pretty decent indicator to the relative success of a retailer. Add some other signals into the model and it'd probably be good.

I don't need to give the public access to my satellite images. But if I wanted to make a subscription service for 100k/month, I could. It would be non-public, but not insider.



It is not true in the United States, other countries differ: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-12-03/inside...


That's not risky, it's done by tons of funds.


Is it just as legally risky to go to a store with a little mechanical counter and count heads?


> It’s unfortunate that news organizations as reputable and prominent as the NYT only get on these stories so late in the game. This information would have been more useful to the public back in 2013.

It's likely The Times just didn't have enough, or access to, this data to do solid reporting.

If there are people in and out of the industry who are willing to share data that can advance an important story, these things might get out faster.


Interested in these strategies. Is most of the location based data relevant to consumer companies and retail sectors? Trying to think of how hedge funds would apply this location data to other sectors.

I've wanted to use a weather mesh network for a while in commodities and other spaces, but the info has been hard to collect without building a private sensor network.


Why is selling this data not illegal and harshly prosecuted?

You'd expect to find this data being stolen by trojans and sold for bitcoin by anonymous actors on blackhat sites, not by registered companies with offices and employees.


It hasn't yet been used to expose a congressman?

The US lacks GDPR-style general privacy law, but there is a very specific one for video rental records passed specifically as a result of exposure of Robert Bork: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Privacy_Protection_Act


A more generous interpretation, that does not require buying into the generic, unactionable cynicism that everyone is corrupt, is simply that new laws require neat, easily comprehensible and emotional stories to be enacted.

As examples I would cite federal hate crime legislation, enacted after a particularly abhorrent lynching of a gay teenager IIRC. Or the current change of approach to Saudi Arabia’s ruling sadists: of course their industrial slaughter and engineered starvation of children in Yemen is the far larger crime, but the smoking bone saw of Istanbul just grips us far more viscerally.


> the smoking bone saw of Istanbul just grips us far more viscerally.

This is a brilliant, horrifying, piece of phrasing.


To give credit where it's rarely due, I believe I stole that particular turn-of-phrase from Lindsey Graham.


It’s astounding to me that this same country with HIPAA laws protecting name, ethnicity, age, and any identifying information in hospital records has nothing on the books to guard that very same information which can easily be bought and sold if it came from anywhere other than a hospital.


Just like police agencies need a warrant for certain information. Or they can just buy it on the data market, and bypass checks and balances.


A privacy bill is in the works right now. And a lot of big ad-tech companies (Google, Facebook) are fighting to shape it in their favor.


America is corrupt so corporations can spend a little money and shape legislation around these issues.


I like it how iOS displays this arrow when location services are or were used, and how one can see in "Privacy -> Location Services" a brief history of which app did what, and enable or disable location access at all per app.


That does nothing for IP based geo location though. Every rest request to modern cloud services gets geotagged and those tags can be surprisingly accurate in populated areas for people that use wifi.


IP-based location isn't very accurate due to IPv4 addresses becoming a scarce resource.

Mobile 3G/4G data networks are reusing those IPs, so at best you'll get a country or state-level accuracy.

The IP of home / business connections can be static and the accuracy can be good, however you're not taking that IP with you when on the move. So in order to track a user's movement, online services have to link that IP to some unique identifier of that user.

It's not insurmountable of course and native apps have no problem in generating such unique identifiers per user, however without consent it's now illegal to use a user's IP for tracking his location under GDPR and it's also illegal to generate unique identifiers for users without consent. Even logging IPs is now illegal, unless you're doing it for security purposes and only for a limited amount of time.

Also the Terms of Use documents aren't sufficient, there are already many lawsuits active and we'll soon hear of the fallout.


Mobile 3G/4G data networks are reusing those IPs, so at best you'll get a country or state-level accuracy.

If you're lucky. Right now I'm on a Verizon connection that reports me being in New Mexico.

My phone's AT&T connection currently says I'm in Los Angeles.

I'm half a continent away from either of those places.


>That does nothing for IP based geo location though

Of course, since ip "geolocation" is just ip data + location agregatted from ISPs. How can the OS maker "fight" this ?


Android requires apps request location permissions in order to access Wi-Fi IP info.


Aren’t they able to get the ip just by connecting to any server?


Yes, although they won't get the whole Wi-Fi scan list, which means no fine grained triangulation, and also no BSSID, but it's definitely imperfect.

It's also very frustrating if you are using the Wi-Fi APIs for legitimate purposes. Having to explain to a user why you need location permissions in order to set up a Wi-Fi peripheral isn't easy.


That doesn't matter at all if your request is being location stamped because it came from a Starbucks / your home WiFi IP.


By introducing VPN I guess (I think Google offers one on their Fi service) - I don't seen any other solution, especially since telcos sell your data as well.

It's just worth noting that flipping a switch in your OS might not do much in terms of location tracking.


And then unless you are hosting your own VPN, you have no way of knowing whether your VPN provider is selling your data...


That reminded me to check my privacy > location services settings and look for any apps that have "Always" and change them to "While Using" only


I wish there was something similar on Android. I used to keep my Location services off but needed to switch it on for Google Maps and HERE maps so I got lazy and leave it always on.

Its shameful that Android 2.3 let you have more control of your phone than Android 8.1.


Not exactly android but if you buy a phone supported by LineageOS then you have that functionality from privacy guard. You can set various app permissions to always ask as well as other things such as (dis)allow an app to start at boot.

As a bonus you can be confident those settings will remain the same after updates ;)


You can use Automate or other apps to enable/disable Location only when you have a specified app in the foreground. It's a bit clunky because it relies on enabling GPS each time you bring the app up (which also means you get a 'Can Google keep all your location data all the time?' prompt or two). It also relies on Accessibility services which might go away or be more heavily curtailed in the future.


The production value of these lavish spreads by the New York Times is impressive.


IIRC Mike Bostock used to work for them and while there was responsible for D3js and more. They've taken the smart path in publishing and took the transition to digital seriously.

https://bost.ocks.org/mike/


Agree, that's some lovely parallax that normally stutters for me on other sites / implementations.


helps if your graphics editor also develops sveltejs, ractivejs and rollup


Here is an idea for online advertising. Use IP and text based contextual targeting. No stalking required.

Stalking everyone and building increasingly creepy online profiles to target better is an abuse of basic human privacy, if you stop to think about it, and completely unethical and takes your hurtling down the path to a surveillance society.

The only reason its even possible because of the lacuna in a new space and laws catching up, and when they do, it won't be possible. The idea that making money makes everything ok is a primitive and fundamentally antisocial ideology. And if everyone thought like that would end civilization as we know it.


The next thing I want Apple to do: If an app will request location services, it must: 1. Have a specific publicly available URL that contains all "location data" terms, conditions, and privacy information. 2. Monitor that URL and reset the permission dialog if the URL ever changes. 3. Immediately disable location services for that app if the URL disappears.


What is the correct way to regulate this?

The problem is that, from small business to mammoth company, there is no codified, unified, agreed upon manifesto when it comes to handling data at any level. A "Constitution" of sorts that explains the rights and / or wrongs of the data usage of the average user. Somewhere where a user can look at a document, see which company falls where on the spectrum, decide if they are comfortable with the sharing of that, and actively signs off on it. As an addendum, it's also important to think, while my for example, email data might be shared, it will enable certain benefits that I sign off on like Google providing me flight details, etc., but it comes at what expense.

You'd get a wide spectrum of those who couldn't care less to those who are tin-foiled, but no matter where you fall on this spectrum, you'd at least know which software does what. If that manifesto-like document is broken, consequences would be maintained.


The way to do it is to push for new data formats where the inherent value of even “leaked” information is going to be limited by the format (e.g. expires in some form, and/or must always be combined with some new recently-refreshes data to be considered valid).

Unfortunately, something of that magnitude in this age would probably require the cooperation of large entities like Google and Facebook. Guess who profits from the current leaky model.

Honestly, Apple may be just about the only one capable of shifting the tide. They’re big, they claim a privacy focus, and they’ve delivered some (e.g. Apple Pay, iMessage). If they could come up with more secure technological replacements for the things that are currently leaked by apps, we might have a chance.

The “one time card” approach of Apple Pay seems like the basis for such a system. For example: stop giving apps “my location” tied specifically to me, instead give them “location of unspecified user” where that token goes away after one app transaction.


Apple in some ways is like a quasi data privacy regulator because they have control of the App Store. They can use App Store policy to forbid these third party frameworks being included in apps.

But that's not a scalable solution. Privacy legislation is required to raise the bar for everyone. Apple's not going to be able to sue or fine companies nor can they police companies about how they use data they've managed to collect.


I think there's a lot to say for the EU's approach: the societal benefits of location-based tracking (more targeted and hence relevant advertising, for example, or apps that are free to use) is not considered to outweigh the societal downsides (e.g. undermining democracy), so it's simply not allowed at all unless the user explicitly and unambiguously agrees with their data being used for that purpose.


Are people reading this article surprised that your devices know your locations? We are constantly getting "helpful" notifications that should make it VERY clear that's happening: "Parked car location updated" "It's 8am, are you on your way to work?" "Can you share feedback about that restaurant you were at but didn't check in at?" If people don't already know, then good for the Times for making sure everyone is checking their settings and paying attention.


Where is the list of offending apps? How hard would it be to name and shame them and keep track?

The NYT article cites the company MightySignal claiming 1,200 Android and 200 iOS offending apps.

EDIT: The NYT outlines their reporters' testing, and the apps they used: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/technology/location-track...


It’s going to take serious amounts of data leaking before something is done to combat this.


A couple of politicians having their affairs outed would do it.


Evidently that doesn’t damage your public support anymore.


rolls up sleeves alright, folks, let's get to it


Someone should create an app that translates a companies T&C into layman terms with simple stuff like "they track your location", "sell your usage data", etc. Just need a team of lawyers to interpret them, and a nice web site.

Call it something like AppSideEffects.com "Things that may be harmful when using these apps/web sites"


Terms Of Service; Didn't Read is very close to what you're looking for.

https://tosdr.org


And more people who contribute reviews are always needed: https://edit.tosdr.org (tool in beta, but functional)


Think bigger: companies should be required to present their terms in plain English. Not all things need lawyers.


That doesn't make much senser. As soon as you wrtite a legal document in "plain English", whatever that may mean, you would find out how bad plain language is at capturing the endless nuances of actual life that need to be captured in contractual language.

I also don't actually find the current language of TOS prohibitively obfuscated, even though English isn't even my first language. The trouble is length far more than phrasing.

What could possibly work is to codify certain recurring segments, i. e. specify them once in a (complicated) law, then represent them in an understandable format, such as a visualisation. The "Nutritional Informations" come to mind.

Alternatively, a certification scheme grading different levels of data protection could work, such as it is currently used for organic food.

Or, you know, just outlaw the stuff that no sane person would ever accept unless forced to by the market converging on one, very low, standard.


> Or, you know, just outlaw the stuff that no sane person would ever accept unless forced to by the market converging on one, very low, standard.

I think this and legislation requiring a good faith plain text explanation of terms would work well together. You can have the legalese for the details, but many (most?) Things people care about can be talked about plainly.


Why do Apple and Google get a pass here? Who knows what apps are doing with your photos and contacts. Apple doesn't. Facebook was grilled for not aggressively shutting down an app that sold much less sensitive information.


FB didn't explicitly give you the ability to shut the offending app down.


There needs to be a distinction at the api & permissions level between course and fine geolocation. My weather app doesn't need to know my exact address... location within a half mile or mile would be fine. Similarly with "gas station locator app". But my GPS navigation app DOES need fine location.

If you could control this permission at the app level, many of the privacy issues brought out in the article would be mitigated.


I would love for someone from The Times who worked on this story to share the source of their data.

No one on Twitter nor in their interview on The Daily answered my main question: What was the source?

Sure, they don't want to reveal private information about the people they highlighted, but what about the millions of dots they plotted on the map?

That data came from somewhere. Did someone leak it? Did The Times buy it? Some transparency would be great.


> On Fysical’s map, a bright red box near the Capitol steps indicated the general location of President Trump and those around him, cellphones pinging away.

My main worry is that these practices allow many people to doxx and subsequently bribe journalists, lawyers, politicians, etc.

This feels like a judicial security hole. I wonder if something like responsible disclosure for software security issues could help, and what the moral issues are with that: doxx the people in charge of the laws, then contact them to say that you will make public how you obtained their personal data in <x time>, so they better make sure that the judicial hole is plugged before that time.


i quite like when apps use my location info to do unique things like recommend places in the vicinity that are good(foursquare) or give me specific filters for a location(snapchat) phones should obfuscate the location provided in some way so that users can take advantage of location services without continuously sharing my movement to the backend


Just looking at location settings on my android phone, it says Google Play Services queried my location recently

But on looking in the settings for Google Play Services there's no option to disable the Location permission in the permission settings, which means location is permanently on (if you keep the location sensors on)


I scanned the article, but this mostly sounds like they are painting this as an application behavior. It isn't true. There are tons of companies that use RAW location data that you cannot opt out of.

https://airsage.com/


AirSage is very clearly offering non-anonymized (read: private) information about individuals. That is, they offer "insights like the home and work locations of people".

> AirSage uses its massive source data and patented algorithms to understand the movement of population and trips start to finish, origin to destination every day for the entire country. It’s not just about the where and when. Through years of research and development, AirSage also knows the “why”, or purpose, of the more than a billion trips made in the United States every day.

> Understanding populations as they relate to the physical world has been the core competency of AirSage since the beginning. For any physical point of interest in the United States, insights like the home and work locations of people seen in an area or duration of stay or frequency of visits are all characteristics that can provide a new level of understanding never before capable.

> Brands and Marketers recognize that the world is not just about what takes place on the screen of a tv, computer or mobile phone. It’s about how technology helps enhance our real physical world. AirSage is a leader in providing insightful information about the audiences advertisers want to reach as they relate to the locations and places that people spend their time.


I often have trouble explaining to people why this is problematic. I encounter the "I've got nothing to hide" or "Who cares if I get ads that I'm more interested in?" arguments.

What do you say to those people?


I try to relate to something they understand a bit more, usually a field their interested in.

For example, my brother is not techy at all, but he's big into cars.

I asked him if he would enjoy Ford sending everything he's doing in his car to the mothership, then selling that info to insurance companies, or used for "marketing." (immediately he understood the issues)

Then I ask if he's comfortable with knowing that if he accidentally speeds, turns too fast, or breaks too often, he may have to pay more for insurance.

This obviously won't work for everyone. I do have the "i have nothing to hide" friends, but i ask them what if someone DID have something to hide? Not everyone loves "showering with the windows open."

It's fine if they don't care about their lives, but what about their childrens lives, or lives of someone they care about? Once it hits that point, they usually just mention that it isn't important and go off about something else to change the subject.


Monday's episode of the Daily did a pretty good job with this. It opens you up to a myriad of ways for blackmailing or other nasty things through correlation attacks. The data itself is for sale and anyone with the money for it can use it however they want. Hypothetically you could make it as extreme as you want, with what's available now the following could happen with just your location data correlated with your work or home address:

Your insurance company will increase your premium if they see you're often out late at night.

Your employer could see if you use a vacation day to, possibly, apply at a competitor without him knowing it.

Workers at a nuclear powerplant might get approached by foreign actors intercepting their commute.


The original title was much better: Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret.


You're likely seeing a version of the headline meant for social media.

Regardless, this is a better headline style wise.


This is the title of the New York Times article and as posted here before it was edited.


i want my location history - for me. i just don't want it sold to third parties. if google will store it foe me and map my walks etc, great- but i don't want them to sell it or even use it much.

and i don't think that's a lot to ask. want me to pay for the 50cents storage costs ? sure.


Any gap in the market for a privacy phone? i.e. Android customised to block all telemetry by default.


LineageOS gives you Android without google, and fine-grain app permission control.


Unfortunately, US carriers are selling the location data based on your SIM card, so even "dumb phones" are still subject to tracking.


Didn't RIM try something like that?


I keep Location Services on iOS and GPS off at all times, unless I really need them. Even on iOS, I make sure that the only app that can use it is google maps. This works great for privacy, but I have issues with compass calibration.


I've brokered terabytes of data over the last 10 years.

It's worth paying attention to companies like https://alternativedata.org


This seems hilariously sanctimonious and hypocritical from NYT.

For example, consider some of the navel-gazing bullshit projects they spend time on:

- https://investors.nytco.com/press/press-releases/press-relea...

Particular “Project Feels”

- https://digiday.com/media/project-feels-usa-today-espn-new-y...


Any tips for avoiding location sharing on Android?


I believe as long as you connect to WIFIs that are already geolocated by other people's phones, you are in.

Uncloaked WIFI probes also can expose you to stalker routers.


you can start with getting NetGuard - a no-root firewall that can be used to prevent apps from connecting to unnecessary domains. It's from the same developer who made xPrivacy.

If you can achieve root, you will have much greater controls over privacy. Unfortunately, it seems cellphone manufacturers are moving away from giving users control over their devices.


Disable WiFi scanning and Bluetooth scanning. Search for "scan" in settings.


Flash your device with a custom ROM that supports location spoofing?


Folks here may be interested in knowing that our team has been working with many others on building out a Privacy-Enhanced Android, which seeks to offer new programming models, new isolation mechanisms, and new user interfaces to help improve the entire ecosystem of privacy. This is a DARPA-funded project.

Some of our team's work (past and present) that may be of interest to folks here: - We analyzed the privacy of Android apps at <a href="http://privacygrade.org">http://privacygrade.org</a>. The basic idea is that we use crowdsourcing to generate a model of what people are concerned about, and then apply that to all the apps we crawled. We're working on an update of PrivacyGrade using network data too, to map out who knows what about us and why.

- Perhaps one of the biggest findings from our team's research is that over 40% of apps that use sensitive data only do so because of third-party libraries (e.g. advertisers or analytics). We've mentioned this in talks to the FTC, Google, Apple, and others, that these third party libraries are the biggest point of leverage here if we want to solve the problem. See this paper: <a href="http://www.cmuchimps.org/publications/does_this_app_really_n... this App Really Need My Location? Context-Aware Privacy Management for Smartphones</a> (PDF).

- <a href="https://privacyproxy.io/">https://privacyproxy.io/</a> (sorry, self-signed certificate is a bit out of date). This is a VPN that scans outgoing traffic for likely personally-identifiable information

- <a href="http://www.android.protectmyprivacy.org/">http://www.android.... This requires rooted phones, intercepts calls to sensitive data on your phone, and aims to help you make better decisions by surfacing these calls and showing you how what the majority chose to share

- <a href="https://privacystreams.github.io/">https://privacystreams.gi.... This is a new programming model that aims to make developers' lives easier, and improve privacy as a side effect by making accesses to sensitive data easier to analyze. A key observation is that most apps don't need fine-grained data, but currently apps require all-or-nothing access. For example, raw audio vs "just loudness", or exact GPS vs "what city". We offer stream-like processing that makes it easier for devs to get the granularity they want, which also makes the app much easier to analyze. So we can analyze an app and output "this app uses your microphone to get loudness"

- <a href="https://www.slideshare.net/jas0nh0ng/fostering-an-ecosystem-... an Ecosystem of Smartphone Privacy</a>, this is a talk I gave last month that summarizes a lot of our team's work on privacy

Our DARPA PM has asked us to focus a lot more on tech transfer activities for our final year, so if any of you are interested, send me a mail. (This is tech transfer in terms of getting industry to adopt our ideas, not necessarily commercialization or licensing.)


The article says NYT was able to go through the users' location histories.

How?


Anyone know where to get the kind of dataset that the times has?


If you use Google Maps to share your location with friends, you can find an URL (using the browser’s devtools) that is stable and gives you location data in JSON.




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