As smartphones have become our constant companions, an industry has arisen that uses apps to track people’s whereabouts, sometimes thousands of times a day. The firms that collect and sell this data are secretive, and they have remained largely unregulated by assuring the public that the information is anonymous, and assuring policymakers that consumers knowingly consent to the tracking.
A team of reporters and developers at The New York Times put the lie to both of these assertions, using a combination of shoe-leather reporting and empirical testing.
To demonstrate how revealing the location data is, a Times reporter obtained an internal corporate database with information from more than 1.2 million phones. When traditional mapping software proved incapable of rapidly handling that much data, a Times journalist built a program to do so. It enabled reporters to see that phones had been tracked at Planned Parenthood clinics, houses of worship and other sensitive locations. The team also found owners of some of the phones who were willing to have their information made public, demonstrating that the anonymous tracking could easily be used to identify individuals.
Comprehensive data about location-tracking apps is not available, so the team conducted its own technical investigation and built a database of tracking companies. Journalists used a tool that could record data sent from a smartphone, along with more complicated computer security research techniques, to help reveal many of the transmissions. The team parsed what the apps told people when asking them to allow location tracking, and found that many popular apps were sharing people’s data with dozens of companies and giving the consumers incomplete or misleading information about it.
The article’s innovative online presentation allowed readers to see the full scope of the data and illustrated the intrusiveness of tracking an individual’s phone. Reporters further explored their findings in a Times podcast and through social forums such as Reddit.
The investigation quickly influenced the debate among policymakers about online privacy. Location tracking became a key line of questioning when Google’s chief executive and other tech leaders testified before Congress. And a month after the article was published, the City of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the Weather Channel and IBM, companies that figured prominently in the reporting.