Every 3 Minutes, Smartphones Track User’s Location

24 Mar 2015
by Reggie Pierce
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Every 3 Minutes, Smartphones Track User’s Location

Most smartphone users today are aware that some apps track their physical location. It’s a necessary part of providing services like GPS navigation, location-aware notifications, and sharing locations on social networks. However, few people pay attention to how often apps request location data.

In a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, the apps in a typical users’ phone made an average of 6,200 location requests per week.

This amounts to tracking an individual’s location every 3 minutes.

Many apps requested information far more often than seems necessary. The Weather Channel, for example, collected location data 2,000 times per week on average during the study (roughly every 10 minutes).

The study followed 23 smartphone users with Google’s Android 4.3 mobile operating system for three weeks. Once participants began receiving notifications showing how often they were being tracked (such as in the image above) they had strong reactions.

“4,182 (times) – are you kidding me? It felt like I’m being followed by my own phone. It was scary. That number is too high” remarked one participant.

After being made aware of how often apps asked for their location, study participants showed increased motivation to reduce the amount that apps tracked them, reviewing app permissions more and blocking access for more apps.

Co-author Norman Sadeh, a Carnegie Mellon professor, said that “The vast majority of people have no clue about what’s going on.” However, it appears that simply being told exactly how often apps collect data may be enough to change individuals’ behavior.

Sadeh also said, “The fact that users respond to privacy nudges indicate that they really care about privacy, but were just unaware of how much information was being collected about them.”

The participants in this study used popular, legitimate apps that any smartphone user might have, but there are many knockoff apps that also collect location information. Rogue developers use popular brand names and logos to attract users, and can then access a steady stream of personal information. The best strategy to keep brands from being used in this way is to proactively detect and remove any illegitimate brand use in apps.

Brand owners who are concerned about their intellectual property being used in this way can contact IP Lasso for a consultation.


Sources: Carnegie Mellon University, the Wall Street Journal

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