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Study reveals the scary amount of personal data apps can collect without your permission

Published Feb 21st, 2021 3:49PM EST
Location Tracking
Image: Google

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  • A new study has shown that apps tracking user location data can also infer additional personal information, including personality traits, habits, demographics, and interests.
  • The collected information can be used to deliver targeted ads based on data related to the places a user visits.
  • Researchers created an app to track volunteers’ location and use it to infer other information about them, including health, ethnicity, religion, and political opinions.

Apps running on iPhone and specific variants of Android will ask your permission before using location data when you first run them. There’s an option to allow the app to use your location only once rather than granting permanent access. But things weren’t always like that, especially on Android. Google ran into its own location tracking-related problems a few years ago when it was discovered that even people who turned off location history were still tracked. It’s not just navigation apps like Google Maps that request access to user location on mobile devices.

A new study reveals the scary amount of additional data that can be inferred solely from location information, suggesting new ways to handle location data accessible to apps that might reduce the impact on one’s privacy.

Researchers Mirco Musolesi (University of Bologna, Italy) and Benjamin Baron (University College London, UK) attempted to determine how much personal information is collected via location tracking. They developed an application for that purpose called TrackAdvisor, which was installed on devices belonging to 69 users. The app ran for at least two weeks on each device, tracking more than 200,000 locations. The app identified approximately 2,500 places and collected 5,000 pieces of personal information related to demographics and personality. TrackAdvisor was able to infer data about the volunteers’ health, socio-economic situations, ethnicity, and religion by simply looking at the location information it collected. That’s the kind of data that users would deem as sensitive and private.

The app also included a way for volunteers to provide feedback on the accuracy of the data collected about them. That’s how the authors were able to determine what sort of information would be considered private or sensitive.

“Users are largely unaware of the privacy implications of some permissions they grant to apps and services, in particular when it comes to location-tracking information,” Musolesi said in a statement. “Thanks to machine learning techniques, these data provide sensitive information such as the place where users live, their habits, interests, demographics, and information about users’ personalities.”

The authors say this is the first extensive study to shed the light on the kind of information that can be learned from location tracking. “Consequently, the study also shows how collecting such information can represent a violation of the users’ privacy,” a press release reads.

The researchers say that such studies could pave the way for improved location tracking policies in apps to better protect user privacy. This would involve more granular privacy controls that allow users to choose what type of location information should not be shared with apps.

“Thanks to such systems, users interested – for example – in protecting information about their own health could receive a notification each time they go to a health clinic or hospital”, confirms Musolesi. “But there is more. This could also lead to the development of systems that can automatically block the collection of sensitive data from third parties thanks to previously defined privacy settings.”

Various apps and services track users across the web and on mobile devices, and escaping ad tracking is almost impossible. But you can limit the amount of location information you share with other apps by going into your phone’s privacy settings and changing the location permissions for each app that might request it.

The full study is available at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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