How mobile apps track and share your location and other personal information

You are being tracked. The tracking device is your smartphone. And the tracker? Apple and Google. And your cellphone carrier. And software companies. And countless other third parties. And shopping malls. Oh, and also potentially law enforcement agencies.

Just what, exactly, are these groups tracking? And why? Read on to find out.

For one, Cellphone manufacturers and carriers track your location, even when you explicitly told them not to via your phone’s settings. They track for largely two reasons. The first is relatively innocuous: They use the data obtained from tracking to improve their cellular service.

The second reason, however, is more inflaming: Money. Tracking your location allows these companies to make more money through selling advertisements. Because advertisers want to tailor their ads to the their target geographic, and they'll pay more to do so.

But the tracked data may include more than your location; it may also include how you use your phone, from the messages you receive to the photos you snap. The claimed reasoning behind this tracking is to "help customers understand how customers are using their devices." Notwithstanding this benevolent purpose, these companies are still accessing your important personal information details stored in your phone. Messages to and from loved ones; addresses of you and your friends; your photos.

All this tracked data is valuable; and not just to advertisers, but also to law enforcement agencies. Michigan police, for example, "sought information about every mobile phone near the site of a planned labor protest." That's every single person, regardless of whether the police linked them to any crimes. And the cumulative effect of all these illegitimate requests can be staggering. Sprint, for example, "received over 8 million personal information requests" from law enforcement agencies in a little over a year.

The point is, you should vigilant. You need to know both the technical details of your phone or mobile device (does it track you; can you disable tracking) and your legal rights (maybe you have a legal claim against these companies).  

Finally, you may be a victim of a malicious third-party who adds tracking software to your phone without you knowing. We've written a guide to the basics of how to identify and remove cell phone tracking software.

New Media Rights can help cell phone users understand what rights you are giving away when you click "I Agree" to installing an app.

We can also help App developers, many of whom often fail to provide an adequate terms of use and privacy policy, to understand best practices for disclosing how personal identifying information is collected and used to the users of your app.

Creating a proper terms of use and privacy policy can help avoid a growing amount of privacy class action lawsuits as well as potential fines from the FTC and other regulatory agencies.

IMPORTANT NOTICE!

We CAN'T actually track down your cell phone for you, and we CAN'T troubleshoot problems that you have with your phone.

But we CAN offer advice on the legality of cell phone tracking, removals from your favorite app stores, and help understanding the laws that relate to your phone.

Contact us here if you are a consumer or app developer with questions about location tracking.

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