There’s a multibillion-dollar market for your phone’s location data

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Sat. Oct. 2, 2021 | By Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng – tnw |

A huge but little-known industry has cropped up around monetizing people’s movements

Companies that you likely have never heard of are hawking access to the location history on your mobile phone. An estimated $12 billion market, the location data industry has many players: collectors, aggregators, marketplaces, and location intelligence firms, all of which boast about the scale and precision of the data that they’ve amassed.

Location firm Near describes itself as “The World’s Largest Dataset of People’s Behavior in the Real-World,” with data representing “1.6B people across 44 countries.” Mobilewalla boasts “40+ Countries, 1.9B+ Devices, 50B Mobile Signals Daily, 5+ Years of Data.” X-Mode’s website claims its data covers “25%+ of the Adult U.S. population monthly.”

In an effort to shed light on this little-monitored industry, The Markup has identified 47 companies that harvest, sell, or trade in mobile phone location data. While hardly comprehensive, the list begins to paint a picture of the interconnected players that do everything from providing code to app developers to monetize user data to offering analytics from “1.9 billion devices” and access to datasets on hundreds of millions of people. Six companies claimed more than a billion devices in their data, and at least four claimed their data was the “most accurate” in the industry.

“There isn’t a lot of transparency and there is a really, really complex shadowy web of interactions between these companies that’s hard to untangle,” Justin Sherman, a cyber policy fellow at the Duke Tech Policy Lab, said. “They operate on the fact that the general public and people in Washington and other regulatory centers aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing.”

Occasionally, stories illuminate just how invasive this industry can be. In 2020, Motherboard reported that X-Mode, a company that collects location data through apps, was collecting data from Muslim prayer apps and selling it to military contractors. The Wall Street Journal also reported in 2020 that Venntel, a location data provider, was selling location data to federal agencies for immigration enforcement.

A Catholic news outlet also used location data from a data vendor to out a priest who had frequented gay bars, though it’s still unknown what company sold that information.

Many firms promise that privacy is at the center of their businesses and that they’re careful to never sell information that can be traced back to a person. But researchers studying anonymized location data have shown just how misleading that claim can be.

The truth is, it’s hard to know all the ways in which your movements are being tracked and traded. Companies often reveal little about what apps serve as the sources of data they collect, what exactly that data consists of, and how far it travels. To piece together a picture of the ecosystem, The Markup reviewed the websites and marketing language of each of the 47 companies we identified as operating in the location data industry, as well as any information they revealed about how the data got to them. (See our methodology here.)

How the data leaves your phone

Most times, the location data pipeline starts off in your hands, when an app sends a notification asking for permission to access your location data.

Apps have all kinds of reasons for using your location. Map apps need to know where you are in order to give you directions to where you’re going. A weather, waves, or wind app checks your location to give you relevant meteorological information. A video streaming app checks where you are to ensure you’re in a country where it’s licensed to stream certain shows.

But unbeknownst to most users, some of those apps sell or share location data about their users with companies that analyze the data and sell their insights, like Advan Research. Other companies, like Adsquare, buy or obtain location data from apps for the purpose of aggregating it with other data sources. Companies like real estate firms, hedge funds and retail businesses might then turn and use the data for their own advertising, analytics, investment strategy, or marketing purposes.

Serge Egelman, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s ​​International Computer Science Institute and CTO of AppCensus, who has researched sensitive data permissions on mobile apps, said it’s hard to tell which apps on your phone simply use the data for their own functional purposes and which ones release your data into the economic ether.

“When the app asks for location, in the moment, because maybe you click the button to find stuff near you and you get a permission dialog, you might reasonably infer that ‘Oh, that’s to service that request to provide that functionality,’ but there’s no guarantee of that,” Egelman said. “And there’s certainly usually never a disclosure that says that the data is going to be limited to that purpose.”

Companies that trade in this data are reluctant to share which apps they get data from.

The Markup asked spokespeople from all the companies on our list where they get the location data they obtain…

Read more here

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