“Would that be all, sir?”
“Yea, a soup first, and after we are done with that, hot ramen and a steak.”
“Good choice! … May I know where you live, sir?”
“Whaaat? I am sitting right in front of you…”
“Can I peek in on your family photos, then?”
“Perhaps if you could…” A little pause… ”show me your call history?”
And rightly so! Your attendant does not need all that information while they are serving you in a restaurant. Why would they? You are sitting there right in front of them and all the information they need is regarding the menu, its portion size, your allergic reactions to it and when to bring in the mariachi band on your cue, right?
So why is your Tick-Tock Timer+ alarm app asking for your approval to know your location? And while we are at it, why is your Dank-Blink-Me-Right-Meow flashlight app asking for an access to your location AND your photo album?
Even more alarming is why you are not asking questions about it? You wouldn’t give access to your private information to anyone other than someone who truly needs to know, let alone, a complete stranger. So why are you okay trusting apps? They are complete strangers as well, and they may NOT need to know.
The free app business model has made our smartphone devices a hub of different types of apps, all of which require their own set of permissions to work. This, as the law of association applies, has made us go through the permissions screen quickly, allowing everything, not reading what it is asking, just to start using it.
Yes, we stopped noticing and asking questions because every other app wanted to know things they didn’t need. It became normal.
What is not normal, though, is the amount of data apps have on your location and the frequency with which they require it. They practically can trace your route to the doctor’s office and see how long you had to wait there if they wanted to. They can even analyze your habits, too.
“Yes, Sam! You do NOT go to the gym that often. After monitoring you for three months straight we can safely assume that hanging out at the gym 20 minutes every third day does NOT mean you practically live there.”
So Why Do They Need It?
When you look at the types of apps doing it… you’ll notice there are apps which update your location data hundreds of times per day and then there will be some that don’t do it so often.
There are three distinctive patterns here…
- Firstly there are apps such as Groupon that can give you the best deals available according to your current location. This is, sort of, justifiable. Just sort of.
- Then secondly there are apps like Uber. That is an absolute must. Uber absolutely must know where you are. Yes, you may need to book for someone else and you can always enter your own pickup address, but that does not mean everybody knows the address of where they are standing. Sometimes, you will need the app to help you find your current location.
- And then finally… There is that flashlight app and its friend, the Tick-Tock-Timer+. They actually don’t need your location data. But the software libraries they used to build those apps do require that data.
Remember the free app business model. You can’t run your business if you give away your product for free. Something somewhere is being sold. Usually, it is your data.
“If you didn’t pay for the product, then you are the product.”
Andrew Lewis aka blue_beetle (words rephrased for impact)
The free apps make money from one of the following methods…
- In-app purchases
- Affiliate income
- Sell your API or IP
Around 75 companies receive user location data of more than 200 million mobiles devices in the U.S. alone. Most of these companies are in the business of making money by:
- Analyzing/selling/using data to help make ads more effective.
- Analyzing/selling/using data to get a peek into consumer behavior.
In short… Advertisement!
So while your app creators may be gathering data to sell to these companies, they may as well be doing it unwittingly.
Apps are built using code blocks. The fast-paced market demands that code blocks be readily available to stack together and quickly be made into new or be reused for something different. Imagine code blocks like Lego blocks. You can make pretty much anything with them. What if there are third-party Lego blocks builders which made essential builds beforehand, to give you the freedom to make anything besides those essential items every time you are making something.
Just like a login page, which almost every subscriber-based app needs at least one. If a third party provides it pre-made, you won’t have to make it every time. So you use their Lego build to save time and build your unique ones on your own on top of it.
This is the same case with apps. Most use third-party code blocks, the APIs, to do things which are almost always required. So your app requires a Google login, a Twitter or a Facebook login. When you use their APIs, they keep track of your location and more. Now your app requires that too.
Furthermore, the same logic applies when app developers use third-party advertisement APIs. The more accurate the ad is, the more successful it will be. These APIs try to get as much data as they can on their users, to get an accurate profile of what kind of person they are pitching their ads to.
This is why when you start thinking about your receding hairline, all sorts of hair transplant clinics near your area start popping up on your mobile device.
Before you start thinking about replacing your smartphone with a Moto Razr… We must tell you…You are still in control.
What Should I Do?
For starters… One thing is certain, don’t be skeptical of everything. While we can’t scan the millions of apps out there… we can determine their types.
There are a few types of apps that DO require knowing your location to provide you with better services. Then there are those which can only provide you services if they know where you actually are, case in point, Google Maps. So, broadly speaking, following types, land in the safe zone…
· Weather Apps
This is a no-brainer. You need to know whether it will be raining cats and dogs tomorrow while going to the office or not. Do you need to be extra prepared before you leave the house?
· Social Networks Which Offer Auto Check-In at Places
Social media apps rank quite low on the scale of “need” to know your location. At most, it is convenience of automatically checking in at places. For that alone, they get a pass.
Shopping and business apps would want to know your location to help you find their outlets nearby as well as the best deals. You can always search them on your own, however, it is not always you know where or when the need to get that chocolate brownie cake with a tea on the side will hit you hard.
· News Notifications
News updates according to your location is a great heads up for the day ahead. They will need your current location for that.
Whether you are traveling out of town or are about to begin that daily journey to the office, travel apps need your location to help you navigate and notify you about traffic and cool places nearby.
Lyft and Uber require your location for another, but still important, purpose. To know where you are, where you are going and which path will/should you take.
· Smart Homes and Automation
How will your Smart Home devices know when to turn on the light and open the front gate for you if they don’t know where you are? This and the ability to turn other appliances on/off when you are not nearby is why they need to know your location. Geofencing is based exactly on that.
Camera apps help geo-tag your photos.
Few games like the phenomenal PokemonGO require location data to operate properly. Some other games may require this to help you find local servers. AR games of the future will use location data to give users a better experience.
· Health and fitness
These apps track your treks, rides, runs, step count, speed and calories burnt during workouts with the help of location-based data. Your health monitor also needs it to notify someone if you need help being located.
These apps and other similar ones, the ones where the service justifies the required permission, can be given enough permission to help give you high-quality services.
For the rest of them, you can always turn the location access off.
Some apps will not run when you have turned this option off entirely. For these apps, we leave it up to you to decide whether to have them or not.
For others, you can also control the location access to only be enabled when any specific app is running.
Location Data Besides Apps
There are two more ways to disclose your location to others.
1. Your Internet Connectivity
Your smartphone is essentially a computer connected to a network either through Wi-Fi or through your GSM network. Whenever you are connected to the internet, your assigned IP address reveals your partial address. Though approximate, you still are located.
2. Your Data Input
Filling in survey forms or entering a zip code.
If hiding your location is of utmost importance, then you must use a VPN app.
It is up to you to decide which apps should you allow having your location data. For the most part, it is a fair game; when you know a well-reputed publisher is asking for location, it may as well be for better user experience. It is the unknown publishers you need to watch out for.
The world of today is so tightly connected that there is no escaping it—the most we can do is to be cautious about who we share our data with and when to hide it completely.