The Realities of Location Data

The modern news cycle is a funny thing. Depending on what you’re interested in, you can get a completely different picture of the world than your next door neighbor. If you’re a tech junkie, you might see the latest updates about whatever overpriced toy Apple is currently selling. If you’re a dog lover, you might see “The 33 Cutest Funny Pug Pictures of all Time.” If you’re attempting to stay informed about the catastrophic garbage fire that is world events, you might find a buried headline or two about how one child in Yemen dies every ten minutes, and how the United States is directly supplying weapons to their murderers.

Or, if you’re like me, and you work in the location data space, you might have recently noticed a few stories about the terrifying ways that smartphone apps are tracking our location right under our noses. Companies like Cuebiq, Fysical, and Mobiquity Networks are buying up location data on the users of apps like Classified 2.0, Photobucket, Tunity, and more. What sort of nefarious plans do these sinister corporations have with our location? Is it too late to stop them? Are they watching us right now?

Before I go any further, I want to give a very simple solution to anyone who doesn’t want their apps tracking their location. Go to your phone’s settings, go down to the app, click on it to access its settings, and then set the location sharing permissions to whatever you want. It’s that easy. We’ll even make a fun little graphic for you.

Do you feel any better now? Good. Because as sketchy as you might think it is for apps to track your location, the control is quite literally in your hands. Yes, not every app is clear in their onboarding process about how they track and share location and the users who actually care don’t always have a way to opt out of location tracking. The industry at large should get better at that, and they are working on improving. But no app takes your location without your permission, and no app can keep you from turning off location tracking whenever you want to.

But the truth is that people are willing to pay a lot of money for location and other data sets — people like advertisers, city planners, investors — and companies have found a way to obtain that data from app developers. The location data industry has been meeting this demand for years. If you didn’t know about it before, I would urge you to research the industry. Maybe even read some of my old blog posts about the subject. (I can always use the clicks.)

Why would app developers want to sell the location of users, you ask? The answer is: it’s hard to be an app developer. We should know, we do it ourselves. You provide a fun, helpful service that people use every day, but only pay you for once if at all. Some developers make up for this profit gap by filling their app with advertisements, but if they don’t do it right users will probably just delete the app in disgust. Selling location data provides a self-sustaining revenue stream that doesn’t mess with the app experience and keeps annoying advertisements out of the equation.

Another thing these articles tend to ignore is that we haven’t been doing all this data collection unwatched. In fact, during the last few years, the industry has become increasingly regulated and structured. This is a good thing. Regulations like Europe’s landmark GDPR, or the subsequent legislation that California put into effect, keep data companies honest and protect user privacy. Developers and data companies have been working tirelessly to remain compliant in the wake of these new protections, and it has resulted in an industry that values transparency and privacy more and more.

Those are a lot of big words, but I understand if they don’t entirely put your mind at ease. On a certain level, data collection just sounds scary and wrong. Location tracking even more so. How can we comfortably walk around with our phones, knowing that they may be monitoring the steps we take? Should we just throw out all technology and start over?

If the realities of this industry really bother you, I doubt I can change your mind. I can remind you how easy it is to turn off these location permissions. I can tell you about some of the exciting ways that Location Data benefits the consumer, whether it’s by helping you find parking or alerting you about a nearby Earthquake.

I can also point out all of the safety and transparency measures X-Mode follows:

  • We not only show you what we collect but anonymize personal data as well;
  • We are 100% GDPR compliant in the EU, and are transferring those practices to our US users as well;
  • We have an easy to find, easy to understand privacy policy that lays out our practices clearly;
  • We securely encrypt all of our data so that no one sniffing our calls can intercept data.
  • We use data to empower our community. In some cases, our data has been used to save lives.

… and all of that should hopefully make you feel better. Everyone who works in X-Mode understands the magnitude of responsibility we have been given over people’s personal data. We work hard to make sure that we remain transparent about our business practices, and protective of the data we have been entrusted with.

I understand the skepticism. In fact, I encourage it. It will only make our industry more honest, more safe, and more accountable. But it’s also important not to be naive about how digital economies work. The future of marketing, as X-Mode CEO Josh Anton often tells me, is nothing more than “a mere suggestion of what you already want.” At the same time, there definitely needs to be a middle ground between the sketchy data players and no data being collected whatsoever. Maybe we’re being a little optimistic, but here at X-Mode we believe we can be that middle ground — and that we can use data to improve the life of average people and app publishers along the way.

By: Joseph Green

Joseph is currently a student at Emerson College, where he studies Visual Media and Communication. As Content Creator, Joseph develops engaging content via blog posts, push notifications, and ad-copy. Joseph also draws upon his research skills to help contextualize the company’s place within larger technological and social trends in the industry.