Has location tracking gone too far?

Has location tracking gone too far? – words Alexa Wang

GPS technology has been in existence for nearly sixty years, but with the technology only made public at the turn of the millennium, the functions we best know it for barely look a day over twenty.

The first GPS-enabled mobile phone was released in 1999, and while in-car navigation systems came into being shortly before that, it was the mid-aughts when the likes of TomTom and Garmin changed the way we drive and put mapmakers on the back foot.

However, as computing becomes ever more portable, location tracking has become a standard feature of almost all of our devices, from smartphones to laptops. Apps like MoviePass, a pay-monthly cinema ticket subscription service to which location tracking would seem to be irrelevant, are controversially making use of user data in the name of “enhancing the overall experience” of their products. Yet Uber, which needs location data to function as intended, has been strong-armed by Apple to give users the option to turn off GPS data when the app isn’t in use.

Arguably, although none of us inherently want our apps to know and learn where we are at all times without our permission, we as a society are somewhat lax about taking steps to stop this from happening. Yet, for all of the Orwellian overtones this technology suggests, there are many instances where location tracking can be crucial. The question is, for the sake of our privacy, can we strike a balance before it goes too far?

 

Find My Friends: When location tracking works

Before it fell into the public hands through their phones, location tracking technology had been used in a professional capacity for decades; the first two GPS satellites launched in the late sixties, with the final one of the original project going into orbit in 1995. Now this technology has become commonplace, not just for delivery drivers and taxi services, but larger-scale fleets of vehicles.

Companies such as Movolytics use vehicle tracking for their fleet management systems to give clients “a super-accurate picture of the numbers that matter”, from fuel usage to distance travelled. All of this data allows companies who use large numbers of vehicles to streamline their services more effectively by monitoring driver performance.

With the advent of handheld GPS, the ability to keep track of items and people via GPS has been parlayed into apps which have had varying degrees of practical use and importance. Most famous of these is Find My Friends, an app described by Cult Of Mac on its release as “quite possibly evil”, but has since found several ways to benefit users to a literally-life-and-death degree.

Although there has been some controversy over the level of supervision it offers, many parents are employing Find My Friends as a way to keep tabs on their children whilst they are out. This may seem somewhat Big Brother-esque, but with children now receiving their first phones at the age of 10, tracking their whereabouts, if not their phone usage, can offer peace of mind to concerned parents. The app has also been a fundamental tool for emergency services, whether through locating and saving lost climbers or recovering the bodies of missing people. 

Find My Facebook: When it all gets a bit 1984

Almost all social media apps involve location tracking in some capacity, and the revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s harvesting user data from 50 million profiles have hardly engendered confidence. Of course, Facebook’s handling of data augurs ill for other major social media platforms, almost all of which are owned by… Facebook.

Location tracking on social media is a problematic feature at best. Granted, it can be great for businesses; think of all the selfies you’ve ever taken at your favourite bar—that bar can count those posts as an endorsement. However, as Lifehacker points out, by posting online to tell people where you are—whether that’s the supermarket, the bar, or the beach—it also lets them know where you aren’t: home. This potentially opens you up to burglary, as all a thief has to do is trace your current whereabouts and the location of an older photo which has clearly been taken at home, and they have a target which will remain empty for hours.

A recent test has also shown that it’s not just where you post, but who you follow that can lead people to your whereabouts. California researchers noted that “a vast majority of Twitter users @mention with geographically close users”, so by messaging people you’re physically near, you’re effectively ratting each other out.

Find My Future: Can tech companies strike a balance?

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, public opinion on having their data gathered has plummeted; according to Motley Fool, “only 8% of American consumers want companies to use their social media” for targeted offers. Apple, the most privacy-minded of the major smartphone operating systems, has gone so far as to stringently enforce the rules laid out in its app store to prevent data gathering, removing apps which contravene those guidelines.

The Google-owned Android, on the other hand, has found ways to collect geolocation data beyond GPS, relying on old-fashioned cell towers to gather data. Allegedly, this is to “further improve the speed and performance of message delivery”, but even Google’s world-leading encryption services are unable to prevent hackers from recovering this data.

So where does this leave people wanting to keep their data—specifically their whereabouts—to themselves? Short of changing location privacy settings on every app and device, the options might seem limited. However, many users are starting to turn away from major players like Google altogether. For example, DuckDuckGo begun as an exercise in creating a search engine which “doesn’t collect personal information, period”, and only determines users’ location through the IP address used to make the search.

The month after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, DDG racked up a daily average of 23.7million searches per day; compared with the previous April, that marks an increase of 10 million searches. However, Google still retains an almost terrifying share of the search market—90% and around 3.5 billion searches each day—and their Android operating systems have been found to keep tracking users even when location data is turned off. With our phones never far from our sides, and GPS satellite technology lbeing an integral part of the smart device experience, it would seem that location tracking may not have yet gone too far, but really has put all of us in our place.

Has location tracking gone too far? – words Alexa Wang

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