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The New York Times Reveals How Completely Our Every Move Is Tracked

If it were up to me, I’d be nominating the New York Times article “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy” for a Pulitzer Prize.

Anonymous sources provided the Times with a dataset from a single location data company that contained 50 billion pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans over several months in 2016 and 2017. With the data, Times reporters Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel were able to track numerous people in positions of power, including military officials, law-enforcement officers, and high-powered lawyers. They were able to watch as people visited the Playboy Mansion, some staying overnight, and they could see visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tiger Woods. Once they identified any particular phone, they could track it wherever it went. Imagine what that data could be used for in the wrong hands.

The Times has done an impressive job of showing both the scope of the data—with interactive images showing all the location pings at the Pentagon, for instance—and also diving down to the specifics, with a Microsoft employee who made an unusual visit to an Amazon office and a month later, took a job there. Might employers want to keep tabs on employees with access to confidential information? That’s just one example—the article includes others, some speculative, some not (like one random Los Angeles resident who was found traveling to roadside motels multiple times and staying for a few hours each time).

Go read the Times article and the additional pieces that the paper has published:

It’s a sobering look at just how little control we have over our privacy and how little oversight there is over an industry that knows more about us than our own families. Even if we assume good intent on the part of the companies collecting this data, there’s no guarantee it can be kept out of the hands of foreign governments or organized crime. The Times has put the spotlight on this industry; it’s up to us to make sure we convey our opinions of this situation to our elected representatives.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Privacy Now

Per-app location settings in iOS 13 on the iPhoneIn the meantime, go to Settings > Privacy > Location on your iPhone and set every app to Ask Next Time unless you know what it’s doing with the location data. For instance, the Camera app needs the While Using the App setting to geotag your photos, and Maps needs it to give you directions. The Ask Next Time setting ensures that you’ll get a chance to decide the next time you actually use the app. Also, set any apps you don’t (or shouldn’t) trust, like Facebook, to Never, and make sure no app is set to Always unless you trust it implicitly. You might be surprised by which apps want to track you and which are set to Always.

There’s no guarantee that restricting your location sharing settings will prevent these companies from tracking your location because there’s no way to know which apps are abusing their privileges (well, other than weather apps). The only way to be certain it’s not happening would be to turn off location services entirely, but that would severely reduce the utility of the iPhone. Even setting every app to Never would be problematic, eliminating Maps and Google Maps, Lyft and Uber, and photo geotagging in all camera apps. That’s why we recommend the approach above—everyone’s level of concern will differ, and only you can determine how perturbed you are by this tracking.

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Comments About The New York Times Reveals How Completely Our Every Move Is Tracked

Notable Replies

  1. All this is really worrisome, perhaps more so than the Chinese government’s facial recognition program. At least you know what they are doing, this going on surreptitiously (until now, that is). I wonder, do Apple apps, like maps, also share data with the likes of Foursquare (see table of all logos in the article)? It seems this would contradict Apple’s professed concern for our privacy. I did a search for all pages with ‘location’ in Apple’s just published Apple Platform Guide, but could not extract anything with a bearing on this theme. Does anybody know?

  2. This is what Apple says about Maps on their privacy page:

    Where you go says a lot about you. Maps delivers a great experience without Apple knowing which stores, neighborhoods, or clinics you visit. And because Maps doesn’t include a sign-in, where you go isn’t associated with your Apple ID at all.

    Personalized features, like locating your parked car, are created right on your device. Data used to improve navigation, such as routes and search terms, is not associated with your identity. Instead, that information is based on random identifiers that are constantly changing.

    Nothing technical, but it suggests that Apple obfuscates any private information.

  3. If you set an app to “ask next time”, and when next time comes you approve the access, does it remain until you turn it off again or does it ask every time?

  4. Good question. You get three options:

    • Allow While Using the App
    • Allow Once
    • Don’t Allow

    Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that apps can ask for Always Allow in that dialog (or at least Google Maps, which does have that option in Settings > Privacy > Location Services, doesn’t ask for Always Allow).

  5. I wonder how this affects the Fitbit app, and whether I should trust Fitbit. It’s the only app that I currently have set to “Always” (so it can access GPS data). Other apps are set to “Never” or “While Using”.

  6. I do remember that the military forbade Fitbits on some level, since there is some sharing function and people could see were troops were located by Fitbit data.

  7. And as Josh just reminded me, Google just bought Fitbit, so that previous privacy policy will presumably subsumed by Google’s privacy policy.

  8. Yes, we touched on that in this ExtraBIT. I’ve also heard reports that service members headed to the Middle East (in response to tensions with Iran) haven’t been allowed to bring electronics with them.

  9. This AppleInsider article suggests that iOS 13’s new privacy controls are significantly reducing the amount of location data available to the tracking companies. For some people, that may be an incentive to upgrade to iOS 13.

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