For years, the apps and games on your smartphone have been able to secretly track your location and sell that data to advertisers. You’ll get a one-time prompt to allow an app access to this information, and if you allow it, they’ll happily harvest your information in the background as you continue on unaware.
That’s about to change. New updates coming with iOS 13 and Android Q next month will provide more detailed information about how apps use your location data, and they’ll allow you to quickly disable access if something seems sketchy. Marketers who harness location data may be in for something of a rude awakening — if not an outright apocalypse — when users tap into these features.
Location data is a goldmine for advertisers, because it provides deep context about user habits off-line that just aren’t available in many other ways. If an advertiser is able to understand that you visit a lot of coffee shops, for example, that’s a data point they can use to advertise coffee to you.
It can also be used in more complex ways, such as deducing when you’re visiting a friend and targeting you based on mutual interests, like showing you ads for a cool new shirt your friend might have purchased recently. This process taps into something called a “look-alike audience.” This style of marketing can be eerily accurate, which is why people sometimes suspect that advertisers are tapping their phone microphones.
There are legitimate purposes for gathering location data, of course. Foursquare, for example, tracks location data to better estimate how many people are visiting a particular store, so you can estimate how long lines might be. Google Maps does the same thing for public transit use.
But, as Gimlet Media’s Reply All podcast found earlier this year, location data can be harvested and sold in weird ways. A researcher working with the show revealed that a free game had secretly sold his location data to unknown buyers, allowing robocallers to spoof local phone numbers when calling him — an…