Your Location is Your Identity, Just as Much as Your DNA

The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.

Thompson & Warzel, NY Times

In the matter of a couple decades, personal location data has gone from a record that no one ever knew existed to a public record that any company can get their hands on.

Citizens would surely rise up in outrage if the government attempted to mandate that every person above the age of 12 carry a tracking device that revealed their location 24 hours a day. Yet, in the decade since Apple’s App Store was created, Americans have, app by app, consented to just such a system run by private companies.

Thompson & Warzel, NY Times

The cat is out of the bag. Human tracking is a public record. So what does this mean?

The Value

On the one hand, we get extremely accurate traffic navigation that will foresee delays for us. We can call a cab wherever we are, whenever we want. And if you lose your phone somewhere there’s an actual chance you can find it.

Commercially, marketers can connect your digital actions with physical results. BMW can start a program that incentivizes driving through certain areas of the world in electric mode.

Toyota can engage in a partnership with Weathernews, where they connect driver locations, the precipitation measurements from their sensored windshield wipers, and the local meteorology reports to get some of the most accurate, real-time weather forecasts ever.

These are the practical and futuristic use cases of location data. But do the rewards outweigh the risks?

The Downside

On the other hand, location data is perhaps the most connective piece of data available.

D.N.A. is probably the only thing that’s harder to anonymize than precise geolocation information.

Thompson & Warzel, NY Times

Anyone with a bit of common sense can determine a lot about you based on your location. Where you are from 9am to 5pm is where you work. Where you are from 5pm to 9am is likely where you live. Where you consistently spend weekends signifies your friendships, favorite restaurants, and how you like to spend money.

Very bluntly, your location is who you are.

The New York Times Privacy Project obtained a location tracking file that held more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans. This is one thing they did with it:

To evaluate the companies’ claims, we turned most of our attention to identifying people in positions of power. With the help of publicly available information, like home addresses, we easily identified and then tracked scores of notables.

We followed military officials with security clearances as they drove home at night. We tracked law enforcement officers as they took their kids to school. We watched high-powered lawyers (and their guests) as they traveled from private jets to vacation properties.

Watching dots move across a map sometimes revealed hints of faltering marriages, evidence of drug addiction, records of visits to psychological facilities.

Thompson & Warzel, NY Times

I recall a story from 2018 where a fitness app’s location data was compromised and used to locate secret US military bases overseas.

Maybe you don’t feel high profile enough where this appears as a threat to your safety. But that really depends on who knows this information:

In one case, we observed a change in the regular movements of a Microsoft engineer. He made a visit one Tuesday afternoon to the main Seattle campus of a Microsoft competitor, Amazon. The following month, he started a new job at Amazon. It took minutes to identify him as Ben Broili, a manager now for Amazon Prime Air, a drone delivery service.

That we could so easily discern that Mr. Broili was out on a job interview raises some obvious questions, like: Could the internal location surveillance of executives and employees become standard corporate practice?

Thompson & Warzel, NY Times

Location data can be as disturbing and threatening as far as the malice and imagination of the person who holds the data.

Weather apps, news apps, navigation apps, banking apps, sports apps… You’ve agreed to share your location by agreeing that these services are valuable to you.

This highly unregulated industry is riding on a rickety roller coaster. And it’s only a matter of time until the next disaster strikes.

For now, it’s best to inform yourself and protect yourself the best you can. The investigative journalism of the Privacy Project is a great place to start.