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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.

The problem with promises like this, Ben Edelman says, is that they are not always kept. "What should happen if a site promises not to track users in a particular way, or not to store or analyze that data in a particular way?" he asked.

"Time and time again, sites break those promises, then users sue, then sites claim, 'Well, you weren't damaged, so you should get zero.' It's true that users struggle to demonstrate actual damages from these violations. But privacy has intrinsic value, and so does honoring your word."

There is also the reality, illustrated by the ongoing revelations from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, that government agencies can and do get access to online activity of individuals. With location tracking, that means not only sites they visited, posts they made or emails they sent. It also means where they went, who else might have been there, how long they stayed and reams of other information.

"We have seen that the NSA, law enforcement, and other government agencies, can get access to basically anything online under FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) and the USA PATRIOT Act," said Rebecca Herold.

"And, very disappointingly, there is no accountability for their actions. I can understand the need to sometimes gain access to some specific individuals who are true terrorists or criminal suspects. However, without requiring the government and law enforcement to be accountable for their actions, it is a huge risk to privacy, and personal security."

Major internet service providers like Google, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, AOL and Apple have acknowledged providing personal data on their customers when the government demands it. And it is not only the major players. Just this week, Snapchat acknowledged in a blog post that it has been compelled, by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to provide information on its servers to law enforcement.

Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity, is one of many privacy experts who recommend not only disabling tracking features unless they are in use and keeping privacy settings and permissions "locked down," but also for users to be careful about what they share, what information they provide and what they download.

In an interview, Siciliano said the material he has seen people share on social media, including details like documenting their last months of life or chronicling the dalliances of a cheating spouse, is enabling ever more intrusive surveillance. "Unlimited data storage has become manageable and search software has been refined to explore all the data being produced. Government has been implementing this for over a decade," he said.

And while the companies that collect and store all this data may want it secured as much as their customers do, leaks are as inevitable as death and taxes. "There will always be leaks no matter what," he said.


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