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Location-tracking turns your smartphone into your stalker

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 7, 2013
Privacy experts say all mobile users should disable location tracking unless they are actively using an app, like a map program giving them directions.

It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you're awake.

And it's not Santa Claus. It is your increasingly smart smartphone, loaded with processors and apps that you acquired voluntarily, with "location services" that broadcast where you are and, in some cases, what you are doing.

These services are promoted — and successfully sold — as tools to make your life easier and more interesting. And they do. The apps help you get where you want to go, or let you stay connected with your circle of family, friends and associates. You can check in with your friends on the way to the hot new club downtown, so they know where you are and you know where they are. With the help of an app, you can find the restaurant your friends have all given rave reviews.

Then there is Apple's own description of its latest iPhone M7 coprocessor, which notes that it is, "designed specifically to measure motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass," so fitness apps can monitor your workouts.

"M7 knows when you're walking, running, or even driving," the company says, so that if you stop driving and start walking, its Maps app will switch to walking turn-by-turn navigation. "And if your phone hasn't moved for a while, like when you're asleep, M7 reduces network pinging to spare your battery."

With apologies to Sting, your mobile device is now in the realm of knowing, in essence, "every breath you take, every move you make."

So, along with that easier and more interesting life comes a problem security experts have been talking about for years: If your phone knows, it isn't just your circle of selected friends, associates and family members who know. While teen users may be mostly concerned about their parents monitoring them, the companies that provide those magical conveniences are also collecting that information. And that opens the door to surveillance not only by advertisers but governments as well.

Indeed, the New York Times recently reported on police departments in cities around the country using federal grant money meant to combat terrorism to collect and analyze general surveillance data, including monitoring, "a fire hose of social media posts to look for evidence of criminal activities."

That reality is making its way into the consciousness of mobile users, albeit slowly. A recent survey on location-based services by the Pew Research Center's Internet Project found that while a large majority of mobile device owners use location services, they are increasingly aware that this allows them to be tracked.

The survey found that, "74 percent of adult smartphone owners ages 18 and older say they use their phone to get directions or other information based on their current location." It also found that 30 percent of social media users aged 18 or older include their location in their posts. That is up from 14 percent in 2011.

 

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