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Apps sell user location data to advertisers, newspaper says

Apps sell user location data to advertisers, newspaper says

Companies can know exactly where you are to offer advertisements. The discovery was made by the American newspaper The New York Times, which tested 20 apps suspected of sharing information about users’ locations to business groups. On the list are software for local news, parking and weather, such as The Weather Channel and WeatherBug, as well as theScore sports service. From them, it is possible to access location records, enabled within the tool.

At least about 75 companies receive and sell accurate information about the displacement of millions of users to advertisers, often without permission. Some of the businesses claim to track up to 200 million cell phones in the United States to understand the daily behavior of these people.

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1 of 2 Location of users is tracked by various apps that sell information to business groups – Photo: Luciana Maline / dnetc

Users’ location is tracked by various apps that sell information to business groups – Photo: Luciana Maline / dnetc

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The database collected by a company in 2017 allowed the international journal to check travel in detail and with a high degree of accuracy of approach – of just a few meters. Certain devices obtained updates on the user’s route more than 14,000 times a day. In this way, companies had access to personal habits, such as visits to hospitals and the homes of loving suitors.

Companies sell, use or study the data to serve advertisers, retailers and even free investment funds that seek commercial solutions based on consumer behavior. This market is expected to reach revenue of US $ 21 billion this year, equivalent to approximately R $ 82 billion, in direct conversion.

These companies claim that they do not associate names, e-mails or phones with data – they claim to be interested in standards, rather than consumer identities. However, whoever has access to the information (including employees and customers), could recognize someone who had the data exposed without consent. Members of this market share differing opinions: some say it would be a simple procedure, while others say it would require a lot of effort.

Another argument of organizations is that users voluntarily grant data when they agree to the terms of service and activate the use of location in an app, in exchange for services, prizes or discounts – which would be a fair price in exchange for benefits. However, according to the NYT, explanations given by applications when asking for permission are often incomplete, confusing or misleading.

2 of 2 theScore apps on Android and Weather Channel on iPhone ask for permission to access location data – Photo: Playback / New York Times

TheScore apps on Android and Weather Channel on iPhone ask for permission to access location data – Photo: Playback / New York Times

The mobile localization industry, which started as a way to personalize apps and target ads from nearby establishments, has turned into a powerful data collection and analysis machine. In the words of Elina Greenstein, executive at the localization company GroundTruth, they seek to «understand who a person is, based on where he has been and where he is going, to influence what he will do next.»

For example, Greenstein’s company mapped out a hypothetical consumer from home to work to show potential customers how their preferences can be made evident. He could search for healthy recipes on Google, while his data reveals frequent trips to fast-food restaurants. Another questionable practice occurs in hospital emergency rooms. The Tell All Digital agency, a client of a localization firm, says that it displays ads for lawyers who specialize in personal injury to people who have been to those locations.

More than 1,000 popular apps share location data with industry companies, according to information from the mobile analytics institution MightySignal. In all, around 1,200 applications with these codes were found available for Android, while for iPhone (iOS) there were approximately 200. Essential for this market, applications can profit by selling information directly or sharing ads , through financial remuneration.

Leaders in the mobile advertising industry, Google and Facebook also run location-based advertising, using data from their own services. Companies guarantee that they do not sell this information, but use it to customize their products, market targeted ads and monitor their effectiveness. Smaller firms compete for the rest of the segment. It is worth remembering that the Search Giant was at the center of the controversy over two data leaks on Google+ this year, which led to the advance of the platform’s closure.

Both Apple and Google have a financial interest in meeting developers’ content demands. However, the two took steps to limit the collection of location data by apps from their respective mobile operating systems. The measure, in principle, preserves users’ confidential information.

To prevent your travels from being registered and sold, some precautions are essential. When installing an application, pay attention to the requested permissions and only release access to the location when it is really necessary. Also try to read the terms of service in full, as there may be parts that describe the information to be granted with the authorization. If you want to prevent iPhone or Android smartphones from tracking your steps, go to your phone’s settings and disable the function.

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