Wherever you go, you might make money.
But for someone else.
Some companies that shy-away from spotlight are paying top dollar for privileged access to location history stored on your mobile phone, consistent with an initial report from The Next Web.
And it is a growing industry worth of about $12 billion, involving aggregators, collectors, trade & location intelligence firms.
Companies profiting on location data fly under legal radar
A location firm, called Near labels itself “The World’s Largest Dataset of People’s Behavior in Real-World,” featuring data having of “1.6 billion people across 44 countries.” Another company, X-Mode, claims it has data representing “25 percent + of the Adult U.S. population monthly,” whereas Mobilewalla brags about its access to data from”40+ Countries,1.9 billion+ devices, 50 billion Mobile Signals Daily, 5+ years of Data.”
TNW’s “The Markup” identified 47 different companies that collect, vend or trade in location data from mobile phones, consistent with the report. And this list begins to illustrate situation of mass surveillance: an interconnected, collaborative-group of companies that offer code to app developers, monetize user data and sell analytics from”1.9 billion devices”, enabling access to the datasets from hundreds of millions of people. Just 6 of these companies hold data from other than one billion devices and at least 4 other firms say their data is “most accurate” in the industry.
“There is not a lot of transparency and there’s a really, really complex shadowy web of interactions between these companies that is hard to untangle,” said Cyber Policy Fellow, Justin Sherman, at Duke Tech Policy Lab, in TNW report. “They operate on the fact that the general public & people in Washington & other regulatory centers are not paying attention to what they are doing.” And, sometimes, industry is exceedingly invasive. A 2020 report from the Motherboard showed how X-Mode, which gathers location data through apps, was collecting data specifically from the Muslim prayer apps, then selling them to military contractors. That same year, Wall Street Journal reported how Venntel, which provides location data, sold location data to federal agencies, for the purposes of immigration enforcement.
Even essential & benign apps might share your location data
A multitude of firms say, privacy is primary concern, emphasizing that they take great care to never sell information that could reveal the identity of a person. But this can be deluding, as recent anonymized location data studies have shown. The hard fact of modern life is that there is no clear way to know the ways your movements are tracked, traded & monetized. Companies typically do not announce which apps supply collected data or what kind of data they grab where it goes or when. Building an image of the new information ecosystem, TNW’s The Markup reviewed the marketing language of the 47 companies & traced, how data from your phone enters & moves through the information ecosystem.
The personal phone to monetized-data-channel begin in our hands, when you get a notification that asks for your permission to access location data. This is not entirely suspect, since apps about weather, wind or maps cannot really perform their function without knowing where you are. But some of these apps sell & share location data to companies that analyze & use it for profit. Advan Research does this. But others, like Adsquare, buy or trade their way into possession of the data from several apps to aggregate it with other sources. For many apps that ask for location, it is easy for users to opt-out and avoid the risk. But also, the apps that feel most essential and benign could be sources for these companies, who do not share their sources, to maintain a competitive advantage. Time will tell, how our location data is used in coming years and whether new laws might prohibit this increasingly high-tech market that is at once everywhere & nowhere.