Location Tracking: Why You Should Care (Hint: It’s All About the Aggregation)

April 19, 2011 at 9:47 am 9 comments

By Mary Ludloff

Recent update added to the end of this post.

Do you ever read tweets or Facebook walls and say to yourself, “TMI?” Do you ever wonder why people check in to Foursquare? You know, I have developed quite an affection for Twitter as an information source (and it did not begin well). In fact, it has replaced my Google news alerts and Feedburner news feed as my primary source of news and information. That being said, I find myself marveling at how some of the people I “follow” feel the need to tweet their every move:

  • Having coffee at Starbucks on name-of-street, in name-of-city.
  • Shopping at name-of-mall in name-of-city, in name-of-state.
  • Name-of-airline flight number delayed. Stuck in name-of-airport at gate number.
  • Off to name-of-city for a 5-day conference.

And I worry about them. Not about their egos (that’s another post) folks, but more about their safety. Maybe it’s because I am a woman (I can hear some of you crying “sexist”), but letting someone know where I am or where I’m not seems like I am inviting trouble. For example: if you know I am not at home, I could be burglarized or if you know where I am, I could be followed. Paranoid? Maybe, but if you’ve ever been stalked or otherwise threatened you know what I am talking about.

Which leads me to Twitter’s geo-location feature and the concept of location tracking in general. Recently, we were all “a-twitter” (yes, pun fully intended) with the Creepy application:

“You can enter a Twitter or Flickr username into the software’s interface, or use the in-built search utility to find users of interest. When you hit the ‘Geolocate Target’ button, Creepy goes off and uses the services’ APIs to download every photo or tweet they’ve ever published, analyzing each for that critical piece of information: the user’s location at the time… When the software finishes its run, it presents you with a map visualizing every location that it found — and that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck go up. While the location of an individual tweet might not reveal much, visualizing a user’s history on a map reveals clusters around their home, their workplace, and the areas they hang out. Everything a stalker could need, in other words.”

Now, I asked Terence (my esteemed co-blogger and CEO of PatternBuilders) to check this out for me as I did not want to download the app myself. He was happy to report that his location information put him somewhere in Eastern Europe (incorrect) but some of his friends’ and colleagues’ locations were far more accurate. For those of you who do not know the Creepy story, its creator, Yiannis Kakava, set out to illustrate how geolocation social networking sites like Foursquare and Twitter can have scary (hence, the Creepy name) privacy implications.

Of course, there is now another web app, If I Die, which plays out a similar scenario. In this case (and it pains me as a marketer to say so), it’s a marketing stunt. Prospects are chosen from Twitter and their feeds are followed. Their whereabouts are then determined from Twitter’s embedded geolocation metadata and that information is used to phone them at that location to recommend that they, or a loved one, try out If I Die. No, I did not make this up. And guess what:

“Oddly, some people — upon being phoned in a bar or restaurant by a total stranger to warn them about sudden death — aren’t amused, much less motivated to start downloading. Rather, says Erez Rubinstein of the Tel Aviv engagement-marketing boutique Twentythree, ‘some targets are a bit concerned.’ Expressing-total-freakedoutedness concerned. Slamming-the-phone-down concerned. In at least one instance, calling-the-police concerned.”

Yep. And these people should be concerned because it was that easy to find them. The digital world we live in is no longer anonymous and location tracking—whether it’s your Twitter feed, your Foursquare check in, the GPS chip in your phone, the RFID tag embedded in your passport, in your EZ Link toll cards, or in the clothing that you buy—may very well be one of the last layers of your “privacy.” For example, a White Paper sponsored by the University of Illinois and the National Science Federation points out that:

  • In the U.S., law officials use GPS technology to track criminal suspects and parolees without their knowledge and without meeting the standards of wiretap laws or other laws regulating electronic surveillance because they “do not record conversations.”
  • In Singapore, RFIDs are embedded in smartcards and used to pay public train and bus fares. These cards are associated with the user’s national identity number which means that their travel history can be tracked.
  • In a Wal-Mart store in Oklahoma, customers who picked up RFID-tagged Gillette razor packaged were photographed without their knowledge.

We have all spent a lot of time talking and reading about GPS location tracking but let’s not forget about all those RFID tags that are used for inventory tracking and to prevent theft. Did you know that those tags can remain operational after you purchase the item?

The most interesting point the White Paper makes (and if you have time, I urge you to read it) is the difference between a loss of privacy and a violation of privacy. For example, if you are walking in a public place and are being tracked by someone with binoculars you have experienced a loss of privacy because you have “no normative right to privacy from location.” But suppose several different people are watching you? One watches you walk through a public park, one watches you get on a bus, one watches you leave the bus, and finally, one watches you enter a building. “If these observers combine their information, you would feel that your privacy has been violated.” Put another way:

“…it is this centralization of aggregated information that violates your moral right to privacy… privacy is valuable because it provides a context for individuals to create and maintain a variety of human relationships. The personal information that you share with a friend or spouse differs from the information that you share with a business colleague… the centralization of personal information is unethical because it eliminates the context that privacy provides.”

To me, location tracking provides the last piece to the Who, What, When, and Where puzzle. As a singular item, it may have very little impact on your life but when it is aggregated with all the other stuff the digital world has on you, it can have scary, creepy, and even frightening implications. Any company or organization that is capturing your location should ask you if it’s okay to collect it, be explicit about how it will be used, and protect it from being hijacked. And as consumers, we all should think long and hard about whether we want to give this information away via Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare because sometimes TMI is really TMI.

Now, for those of you who would like to have a bit more control over your location, check out this handy cheat sheet on how to disable geolocation functions in specific programs.


In keeping with the topic, it was recently reported that the iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go.  Apparently Apple’s iPhone keeps track, in a secret file, of everywhere you go and when you sync it with your computer, the file is copied. Here’s what the file contains: the latitude and longitude of the phone’s coordinates as well as a timestamp. Since this file is not encrypted anyone who has possession of your phone or computer will also have a detailed picture of where you have been. According to the data scientists that made this discover, Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan:

“Warden and Allan point out that the file is moved onto new devices when an old one is replaced: ‘Apple might have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s our speculation. The fact that [the file] is transferred across [to a new iPhone or iPad] when you migrate is evidence that the data-gathering isn’t accidental.’ But they said it does not seem to be transmitted to Apple itself.”

Thankfully for all iPhone users out there, Warden and Allen have set up a web page to tell you more about what is being tracked, how it is being tracked, as well as what you can do to protect yourself.

Entry filed under: Data, General Analytics, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Mobile Apps: Be Really Careful Out There Analytics Round Up and a Word (or Two) About TweetDeck

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. J  |  April 19, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I am a Police Officer in a major city for over a decade *and* a g33k for twice as long, starting out on an 8088 as a teenager. When I first got on the force, there was very minimal use of the technology I knew existed at that time. And as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. began lulling the general social site user base into actually thinking there’s nothing to worry about revealing your whereabouts, I began using it to track criminals. But here’s a scary thing to pass on: I recently have been shadowing a repo business owner and he had at his finger tips, tracking abilities and tools using public data (that’d be twitter feeds, facebook posts, etc…but also credit card useage and WHERE the credit card was used, utlity information, RFID database access (understand many grocery store RFID databases are joined together and controlled by a company in China)….in other words, private citizens able to glean lots about you if they so choose…much more data than I have as a patrol officer on the street. I’d typically need special clearance or training to access all that data he had at his disposal.


    • 2. Mary Ludloff  |  April 19, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment—you certainly are seeing what Terence and I are in terms of how users of social sites don’t seem to understand just how their “location” can be used against them. Your example of the repo owner opened my eyes to a whole new area of private tracking that I had not even considered as well as made me wonder just how all that data was “made” available. And thanks for the tip on RFID databases—if I can find out more information, it may be an upcoming post!


  • 3. Scott  |  April 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Just a day later, did you see today’s article in wired.com about the location data apple devices are collecting and leaving unencrypted?



    • 4. Mary Ludloff  |  April 21, 2011 at 7:40 am

      Yes, I did and I have updated my blog post to reflect it. CNET also covered this story extensively here and O’Reilly has a video of the two data scientists who discovered the file here.

      Note in the CNET story that the authors were very careful in their tracking application to “cut down on the accuracy of the
      data to keep the software from being used for bad things.” At least someone is thinking about the privacy implications in all of this! As for Apple, although its terms and conditions for location based services say they have the right to collect this data anonoymously, I would think that a good lawyer would argue that by leaving an unencrypted file of this sort available on the phone and possibly the laptop, the collected data is no longer annonymous as it links it back to the device owner.


  • […] I mean everyone else) world has been focused on mobile and location tracking this week (see my previous post which came out the day before the big iPhone location file reveal—I just had to say it), I am […]


  • […] Apple’s FAQ about the iPhone location tracking dust up/kerfuffle/stupidity that I mentioned in a recent post on location tracking made me grit my teeth. First of all, it’s a week after the fact (and a tremendous amount of […]


  • […] Location Tracking: Why You Should Care (Hint: It’s All About the Aggregation) […]


  • […] tracked via the connections your phone makes to cell towers while traveling about. Now, I wrote a pretty extensive post on how often, and through what devices, we are tracked throughout each day and why the aggregation […]


  • […] Apple’s FAQ about the iPhone location tracking dust up/kerfuffle/stupidity that I mentioned in a recent post on location tracking made me grit my teeth. First of all, it’s a week after the fact (and a tremendous amount of […]



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