In today’s digital era, social media has seamlessly integrated into our lives, becoming an indispensable aspect. However, as the use of social media continues to surge, there is a growing concern about privacy, particularly when it comes to location privacy.
Until the exposure of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, we as internet users were largely oblivious to the extent of data exploitation, not realizing how the personal information, location details, photos, and even mundane daily routines they shared on these platforms were being utilized. The revelation of Facebook’s compromise of private information belonging to 87 million users, leaked to third-party app developers, delivered a powerful and staggering blow that shocked the world of social media (Flew, 2021).
It is highly likely that you and I have been directly affected by this breach without any fault of our own. And since most of us lack the knowledge and resources to assess data security, we as users, rely heavily on institutional safeguards and legislation to protect our civil rights (Lwin et al., 2007).
However, on social media, many of us voluntarily disclose our precise whereabouts to our followers without a second thought. By activating our location settings, users can effortlessly “check in” to new areas and dutifully update their social networks about their latest adventures. But we often disregard the fact that we are being watched. When firms or governments control a customer’s information—for example, by knowing where they are—they wield considerable influence (Lwin et al., 2007), and most of the time we let go of such intrusions.
The increasing prevalence of devices that track our location and the pervasiveness of location data collection raises several important concerns. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the broader trend of increased social media usage have shed light on the urgent need for individuals to actively safeguard their online privacy, particularly with regard to location privacy, by adopting proactive monitoring practices to ensure the responsible and secure utilization of their personal data.
But have you ever thought about the potential implications and risks associated with constant tracking and feeding on our location data? Let’s understand what’s at stake.
An individual “feels threatened by a perceived unfair loss of control over their privacy by an information-collecting body” when they have concerns about information privacy, according to Lee et al. (2015). Our comprehension of people’s concerns about organisational practices related to collecting and exploiting their personal information has definitely improved because to research on information privacy (Smith et al., 1996), but there is a long way to go. Location data holds sensitive information about our routines, habits, and preferences. Constant tracking can compromise our privacy and if mishandled or accessed by unauthorized parties, it can reveal personal details that we may not wish to share. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal compromised personal information such as users’ names, locations, email addresses, and other profile information available on Facebook (González-Pizarro et al., 2022). Moreover, the app also accessed and collected data on users’ friend networks, which expanded the scope of the data breach beyond those who directly interacted with the app.
Surveillance and Government Overreach
The idea that we now live in an age of “surveillance capitalism,” which is different from other times of capitalism, is based on the fact that the private sector collects more data on customers, users, markets, and other things. However, this is not a new idea, and the changes are only quantitative (Manokha, I. (2018). Access to location data can facilitate mass surveillance by governments or other entities where both governmental and non-governmental actors, may naturally be tempted to get access to this data for various purposes such as for tracking criminals and terrorists (Manokha, I. (2018). However, continuous monitoring may infringe on civil liberties and raise concerns about potential abuse of power.
Data Breaches and Hacking
Storing vast amounts of location data can become a treasure trove for hackers. Data breaches may expose individuals to various risks, such as identity theft, stalking, or cyberattacks. One of the most common ways hackers and sometimes even users trick their followers is by operating a “location spoofing” tactic. Location spoofing is the intentional creation of a fraudulent location, which has a negative effect on the credibility of location-based social networks and the dependability of spatial-temporal data (Gao et al. (2019). Many of us have breached geo-blocks in order to stream Netflix in the United States or other digital entertainment from another country. It is rather easy to impersonate a GPS location on a smartphone.
Targeted Advertising and Personalized Services
Companies often utilize location data for targeted advertising and providing personalized services. Location-based services have benefits for the consumer, such as ads that are more relevant and appear at the right time. However, a consumer’s privacy is at risk if their location is shared (Krishen et al., 2017). This can result in hyper-targeted ads and potentially manipulating consumer behaviour, blurring the line between personalization and manipulation.
Cambridge Analytica utilized the extensive personal information they acquired from Facebook users to create detailed psychographic profiles. In the area of market research, psychographics was made as a way to link consumer behaviour to market choice (Gunter, B., & Furnham, A. (2015). These profiles aimed to understand users’ personalities, preferences, and behaviours, allowing for more effective targeting of political messages and advertising.
With the psychographic profiles in hand, Cambridge Analytica could segment the targeted audience based on their specific interests, beliefs, location, and demographics. This enabled them to design highly personalized and persuasive political campaigns that appealed to individuals on a personal level. The goal of such targeted advertising was to influence users’ opinions, behaviour, and voting decisions. By tailoring messages and content to resonate with individuals on a deep level, Cambridge Analytica sought to maximize the impact of their campaigns and achieve desired outcomes.
Discrimination and Profiling
Location data can contribute to profiling and discrimination based on factors like race, class, or ethnicity. If data is used improperly, it could reinforce existing biases or lead to discriminatory practices. For example, someone’s location history might indicate their socioeconomic status, political affiliation, or cultural background. If an organization uses location data to selectively target certain communities or demographic groups with misleading or divisive political messages, it can contribute to the amplification of existing biases, reinforce stereotypes, or promote discriminatory ideologies. Your location preferences give easy access to targeting and therefore vulnerable to fake news and hate speech.
Stalking and Harassment
The digital design makes it possible to contact unknown users and find the location (quickly and for free) of social profiles using search engines on the Web (Sukenik & Reychav, 2015). Continuous tracking may enable malicious individuals to track someone’s movements, potentially leading to stalking, harassment, or even physical harm. A 2009 story in Wired (Honan, n.d.) showed the dangers. It showed how easy it was for a journalist to find a woman’s home address by just watching her take a picture (which her iPhone automatically geotagged and then posted to Flickr) (Duckham, 2011). Your location can give easy access to Cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is “an escalated form of online harassment directed at a specific person that causes significant emotional distress and serves no legitimate purpose” (Hitchcock, 2003; Parsons-Pollard & Moriarty, 2009). The goal of cyberstalking is to annoy, alarm, and emotionally abuse another person.
Addiction and Mental Health Impacts
Constant use of location-tracking devices can contribute to smartphone addiction and affect mental well-being. The constant need to be connected and tracked might lead to anxiety, stress, and feelings of constant surveillance. Location-tracking devices enable individuals to be constantly connected to the digital world. This constant connectivity usually creates a sense of dependency and the fear of missing out (FOMO) (How Marketers Can Use FOMO to Influence Customers and Track Social Proof, n.d.), leading to excessive smartphone use. People may feel compelled to constantly check their devices for notifications, updates, or social media interactions, fearing they might miss something important. This addictive behaviour can disrupt daily routines, affect productivity, and contribute to increased stress and anxiety. Boon Ashworth in a Wired story writes about this ordeal of being constantly dependent on location-based apps to make sure that our loved ones are safe shows the harsh reality of how location-based surveillance apps induce anxiety and constant worry (Ashworth, n.d.).
Lack of Transparency and Control
Users often have limited visibility into how their location data is used and shared. This lack of control can erode trust and hinder meaningful understanding of the implications of constant tracking. Many users are unaware of the extent to which their location data is collected, stored, and shared by various apps, platforms, and service providers. The complex and often vague privacy policies and terms of service make it challenging for individuals to fully comprehend how their location data is utilized. This lack of transparency erodes trust, as users may feel their privacy is compromised without their informed consent.
Location data collected from users is often shared with third-party entities, such as advertisers or data brokers, without explicit knowledge or consent. Users may not be aware of the specific companies or organizations that have access to their location data or how it is used for targeted advertising or other purposes. This lack of control over their own data undermines trust and can lead to concerns about how their personal information is being exploited.
Users may not fully comprehend the implications of constant tracking without clear visibility into how their location data is utilized. They may not realize the extent to which their behaviour, preferences, and movements are being analysed, and how this information can be used to influence their choices or manipulate their experiences. This lack of understanding hinders informed decision-making and prevents users from fully assessing the trade-offs between privacy and convenience.
The way forward
The Cambridge Analytica scandal may be a game changer, but there is a long way to go. Individual efforts, business practices, and legislative mandates are all needed to protect location privacy. But user awareness and education are a must. Users should learn about location privacy hazards and secure their data. This involves understanding privacy settings on devices and apps, evaluating and updating permissions, and not revealing location information on social media.
Having said that, companies should disclose their location data collection and use practices. Privacy and terms of service should explain location data collection, storage, and sharing. Before collecting or sharing location data, users must give informed consent. Service providers should only gather location data needed to offer the service. To prevent unauthorised access and misuse, they should routinely evaluate and delete redundant data. They should use location data ethically for targeted advertising and personalised services. Avoid discrimination, ensure transparency in ad targeting, and respect user data usage preferences.
There is a big role that Governments can play here. Government and regulators should create clear and enforced location privacy laws. These rules should govern data gathering, consent, openness, and security. Companies violating privacy laws should be punished.
Tech industry stakeholders, including service providers, policymakers, and privacy advocates, should collaborate to develop location privacy best practices and standards. Sharing knowledge, experiences, and tactics helps create a more privacy-centric digital ecosystem.
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