The New York Times has published a bombshell of a story that goes into great detail about how software SDKs (especially advertisement-based ones) can track your every move no matter how "anonymized" they claim to be. It's a great article and really goes in-depth about how it all works and more importantly, why it's something you might want to care about. Be sure to read it.
The article might seem more important to me than it does to you. That's because each of us has a threshold for this sort of privacy abuse and none of the companies involved have actually done anything nefarious with the huge amount of location data that's being stored. Foursquare, one of the popular companies named by the Times, is a popular app that can be fun to use when you have friends who also use it. Foursquare hasn't done any harm, right?
I doubt Foursquare will ever do any harmful things with our location data, both the real-time data it collects and the terabytes of location history it holds on each and every one of its users. But someday, some company will. And there's nothing you or I can really do about it.
I've said several times that Android 10 is a big leap for Google when it comes to privacy, and location tracking is one of the reasons why. Android 10 changes how apps run in the background, makes it easier for you to delete any stored location history and gives you an option for apps to stop gathering location data when they are not on your screen and in use.
Of course, Google is still tracking your location when it can, but few people think Google is actually selling your location data. It's just being collected so Google can make a lot of money targeting you with ads based on every place you've ever visited unless you regularly delete the data or set up automatic data deletion. But it's not just Google that you need to care about if you care that you're being tracked at all.
Any app with advertisements can and probably is tracking your location, whether you agree to it or not.
Almost every app with ads uses an advertisement SDK that wants to track your location. This isn't the app developer's fault — all they have done is include the necessary pieces so they can get paid for their work. But once you agree that your location can be tracked, an ad SDK can build a very nice profile on exactly where your phone — everything is usually kept under an "anonymous" advertisement ID and not your actual account — goes, how long it stays there, and where it goes next.
The Times shows how this is a great way to determine someone's identity and how bad things could get if the right person is being singled out and tracked. And chances are that every one of those "right" people, like government officials and other high-profile targets are being tracked at every turn because of the apps on their phones.
And it doesn't stop there. You can sign out of every online account, sell your new smartphone and go buy a cheap flip phone and your carrier is tracking your location just as precisely and actually does sell the data to just about anyone who wants it. Each and every time your phone — whether it be the latest and greatest like a Pixel 4 or a free feature phone from your carrier — checks its position to make sure it has a good connection a location was saved by the carrier. That's happening hundreds of times per hour.
You might not care about any of this. A popular response is that since you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide, and that makes all of this a non-starter. I understand that line of thought, but I just can't help but think differently. I have nothing to hide either, but I still lock my front door to keep people out of my house. Location tracking is the same way for me. Where I go is my own business and it should be up to me when it comes to sharing it.
Unfortunately, it's not and unless things change it never will be.