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Every Step You Take: How the digital world tracks your real life location

It’s hard to go somewhere – anywhere these days – and not have one or more people, corporations, and governments know about it. From the phone you carry, to the license plate on your car, to the cameras that now litter the world, our world is collecting data around your movements and those bits are winding up in somebody’s database.

It’s hard to fathom the amount of data we generate just by living our lives. Your phone can send Google 10,000+ location data points by noon if you use Google Maps. The EZ-Pass in your car can be read 75 times while you cross town (even if you go through zero toll booths). And you probably couldn’t count the number of times you appear on-camera each day, not to mention the fact that most of those cameras may be equipped with facial or gait recognition systems.

Want to see a tiny example of what being tracked everywhere you go means? If you have an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Significant Locations. Scared Now? In that case, it’s not so bad. Apple keeps that location data on your device so it’s more private than most cases. Still, it’s worth knowing exactly how companies like Apple are (and can) track your every moment.

Why Are They Tracking Me?

We’re being tracked for several different reasons. Marketers want to learn things about us based on the kinds of places we go so they can improve their marketing. Law enforcement likes to have access to it because it can assist with investigations. And governments have their own reasons for keeping tabs, they’re usually unknown and sometimes questionable.

This pervasive tracking clearly eats away at our privacy, in a technical and philosophical sense. Think of it this way – we’re being counted as being at many specific locations, there are countless ways people can retroactively look up where we’ve been, and the more we understand the scope of the tracking, we’ll start to feel different or even change our behavior because we know we’re effectively always being watched.

Who is tracking you? (and how)

Understanding what or who is tracking you and how your location is being shared or captured is the first step to location tracking management. So let’s look at many (but not all) of the most common ways where you go is turning into what they know.

Your device

Your cell phone or tablet, if it receives calls and messages, communicates with cell  towers. Your mobile provider monitors and logs your activity. As anyone who has ever used their phone for directions knows, phones also serve as a GPS device, equipped with a chip that communicates with GPS satellites to pinpoint your location.

Your browser and search engines

Your browser knows where you are logging on from based on your IP address. Search engines and many websites like Google use your location information to redirect you to a local version of the search engine. For example, if you’re visiting England, you will be redirected to Google.uk.

The apps you use

If you didn’t click on that New York Times article, know this: The many apps we have on our phones and tablets use our device’s GPS to determine our whereabouts, and that information is then sold to marketers. Geotargeted mobile marketing is one of the fastest growing forms of advertising and research firm BIA Advisory Services forecasts that spending in that area will more than double to $38.7 billion by 2022.

For a day in the life of tracking, this excellent graphic from the Boston Globe gives you the details of how you are tracked everywhere you go, and how companies use that data to target you.

Websites and social media platforms

Ever logged in to Facebook and get offers or recommendations based on the city you’re visiting? Like search engines, sites and social media track your location via your IP address to serve you content specific to where you’re located.

WiFi Access Points (even if you don’t connect)

If you have a device that can connect to WiFi, there’s the possibility of being tracked via WiFi, even if you’re not connected. This blog post goes into the technical detail but basically, your device’s unique MAC Address can be timestamped so it’s known when you (via your device) comes near whatever is emitting the WiFi signal.

Smart City Tech

Depending on your city, there’s likely various technologies in place that add convenience to the public at the cost of privacy. Take LinkNYC’s Kiosks for example – they’re digital monoliths that provide USB charging capabilities, free WiFi, and even let you make calls. But they’re also equipped with cameras tracking your every move. The same is true with technology such as electric scooters and digital keys that are becoming a part of modern apartment designs.

Facial Recognition and Gait Recognition Systems

Speaking of cameras, which are nearly everywhere and expanding their reach, are now becoming equipped with Facial Recognition and Gait Recognition technology. This, coupled with AI, allows these systems to immediately recognize and identify individuals as soon as they’re recorded by the camera, giving governments and businesses unfettered access to your location at any given time.

In your car

Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) on roadways have become more of the norm in recent years and allow law enforcement to identify and track cars instantly. These computer-controlled camera systems are mounted on street poles, streetlights, highway overpasses, mobile trailers, or attached to police squad cars. ALPRs automatically capture all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time. The data, which includes photographs of the vehicle and sometimes its driver and passengers, is then uploaded to a central server.

Private companies such as Relentless Recovery, a repossession company, will drive around and take pictures of license plates to find “future repossessions before assignments are issued.” The data is compiled (by a different company) where it can be monetized and sold to various other entities, governments, and corporations.

EZ Pass

EZ Pass readers are installed all across cities, not just highways and toll booths. The ubiquity of them and the fact that they can be tracked very simply has led city officials to install readers at city intersections and to monitor driver speeds.

Minimizing your tracking

There are some clear changes you can make that will reduce how often your location is tracked on a daily basis across the digital landscape. But not all of location tracking can be avoided.

In some instances, such as with any kind of license plate readers, your only way to keep from being tracked is to simply NOT drive in a registered car. That’s not very realistic. When it comes to mobile device or browser location tracking, the only surefire way to avoid being tracked is to unplug – another unrealistic solution.

Turning off location tracking on your phone is not as straightforward as it should be. Some apps do require your location in order to work correctly so you’d have to configure them to only have them on when you’re using the app.

For the devices themselves, disabling location tracking is difficult to find and is located deep inside your phone’s settings. When you disable it, you might also want to disable the location history, which is the location data information that has been stored in your device over time. When it comes to your mobile carriers, however, there’s no setting in your phone that stops them from tracking your location.

Attitudes against location data tracking

The consensus among civil liberties groups is that location tracking is a dire problem that needs to be addressed before it begins to have major consequences. As the ACLU notes in a post on license readers, if the police are tracking all cars on roadways, it represents a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as their political or religious affiliations, medical history, or personal history. It may also impact citizens’ decisions about where they go and who they associate with if they know they are being tracked.

Another concern is what can happen with our data if it ends up in the wrong hands. Any time your data is collected, it’s at risk of being stolen, leaked, or exposed. If someone with bad intentions is able to access your location data, this gives them the ability to know where you go to work, where your kids go to school, where you like to spend time and when you are out of the house for long periods. And because many companies are selling this data, it won’t always require illegal methods of procurement.

How necessary is it for companies to gather this data at the expense of privacy and safety? Constant location tracking without explicit consent needs to end.

Companies need to be responsible with customer data and ensure end users know what is being collected and what it is being used for. Companies also need to make it clear how people can opt out of being tracked. Clear rules and regulations need to be put in place by lawmakers to stop this mass location tracking to ensure our privacy is protected instead of sold in the interest of corporate profit at the cost of our privacy.

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