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You Cannot Escape The All-Seeing Eye Of Apps

The apps are always watching.
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The apps are always watching. Cesare Andrea Ferrari/Shutterstock

Your robots are always watching you, and what they see does not necessarily stay safe or secret. Nope, the apps are double agents who go blabbing to the overlords who pay for the eerily extensive info they collect. At least according to an unsettling investigation by the NY Times, which confirms what you may already suspect but try not to think about: The apps on your phone function as very sensitive tracking devices, funneling extremely personal data into a vast array of advertisers' pockets for profit.

The Times found that 75 separate companies—some of which reported collecting information from as many as 200 million U.S. cell phones—received data from apps, and looked specifically at the info one company collected in 2017. The sale of location data—"startling detail, accurate to within a few yards, and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day," per the Times—to advertisers may amount to $21 billion this year alone, and while many buyers would say they're only trying to get a better idea of consumer habits, there's no way around the extremely creepy nature of this enterprise. Users' identities may be kept anonymous, but its sheer volume makes it unsettlingly easy to match a person with their data set. In a time of unrelenting data vulnerability, the pitfalls here are clear.

"It's very scary," Elise Lee, a New York nurse whose data set the Times reviewed, said of the way-too-detailed record of her daily movements her phone collected. "It feels like someone is following me, personally." Another woman the Times interviewed was disturbed to learn that reporters could "easily" identify her based on the supposedly anonymous location data documenting her movements—and establish that she spent the night at her ex-boyfriend's house.

Sure, you can turn off location sharing settings, but often, the service seems innocuous. Many of us will opt into location sharing when prompted because we have been given incomplete, baseline information about where it goes and why, and because we appreciate the prospect of a more accurate weather forecast, or a better traffic report, or some similarly practical purpose.

Without a more detailed statement of use, it wouldn't occur to most people to go hunting through an app's privacy policy for more information; most people would accept that The Weather Channel app (i.e., the weather widget on an iPhone, by the way) needs to know where they are so it can better determine if they'll need to leave the house with an umbrella in hand. That makes intuitive sense, and if you have no reason to believe you're being fed what—based on this report—really sounds like a lie by omission, you probably won't think much more about it. Meanwhile, the tracker in your back pocket secretly sends data on your every movement to IBM, which owns the Weather Channel app and which, at least for a time, turned around and sold the bounty to hedge funds. Hedge funds and advertisers, meanwhile, mine your habit map for money-making opportunities.

This particular trend has been documented before: In September, for example, Ars Technica reported that dozens of iOS apps were forwarding geolocation information to "location-data monetization firms" for profit, without letting users know. And Google, which (according to the Times) maintains that it collects data solely for its own purposes and not for third party resale, faces a lawsuit for tracking users' location even when they disable "location history." But as computer security and privacy researcher Serge Egelman put it to the Times, "There are really no consequences" for this wide-reaching data sale: People remember that we're all living under Big Brother's watchful eye, they get mad about it, and then they keep on keeping on because what other option is there at this point.

The moral of the story, then: Never enable location sharing and also it's way too late for you. Read the full feature over at the Times if you want to scream some real screams.

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