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Do you recall that image you sent to a friend about a night out? Or that personal text message you sent to your partner? Or when you searched for information because of a sensitive personal matter? And your whereabouts at the time of sending?
Did you also realize that all these messages, images and locations from where you sent data are stored online and could fall into the wrong hands? Aside from the fact that hackers could potentially get to this data, government agencies are also likely to have access to any content of communication when they want to.
It’s a thin line between location data, the content of the data and privacy. Furthermore, it’s a fact that pretty much every single application you install on your smartphone these days asks you to allow access to location data.
Typically, the application tells you that it works better if you enable location sharing. Although you might not worry too much about sharing your location, there’s a chance you expose yourself to potential threats and hackers targeting personal data with fraudulent intent.
Before we dive into the current state of location tracking security and what the future holds for us, let me explain quickly how your location is being tracked:
1) Network Registration
When a mobile device connects to a network, it will reveal its presence on one or several registers or servers of the provider. Registration usually includes location data, at the level of a country but also on more accurate levels, depending on close you are from a signal tower.
When you fly to another country or city and after you leave the plane and turn on your smartphone, you usually receive a welcoming message and an update on the rates in that location.
2) WiFi Connection
When you connect your smartphones to a WiFi network, you basically check-in on a certain location. The location data of logging into a WiFi are highly accurate.
GPS receivers, built into your device constantly update your whereabouts. The signals of a GPS receiver are very accurate and can locate your device within a small radius.
4) Triangular tracking
A significant amount of network operators can track phones accurately by triangulating their distance from various signal towers.
Current State of Location Data Security
There have been multiple reports of researchers and security companies testing mobile phone applications and their location security measures.
Overall, the outcome was rather poor.
For example, Synack gave a demonstration at a conference how poorly some smartphone apps were coded and how easy it was to retrieve the user’s location. Synack demonstrated how they used location data in combination with specific knowledge of a location to determine home and office addresses of influential people and Hollywood stars. During the demonstration, they were able to accurately identify who the owner of a device was.
That means if they can do it, then so can hackers.
In addition, whether you’re using your smartphone or not, it registers its location to networks multiple times a minute. For example, in the U.S. network providers store customer data for as long as multiple years.
Before, we pointed out that Synack was able to determine who you are based on the location of a device. So, this means that if the government knows your location, they know who you are.
This is a serious concern and a significant form of privacy invasion. Fact is, governments and network providers have access to such sensitive information. The technology enables governments to track individuals anywhere they go, without realizing they’re being tracked. Only a court warrant could put a hold on such tracking activities, if not, you and I are both subject to remote monitoring.
The Washington Post released an article about the current activities by the National Security Agency (NSA), stating the NSA collects billions of records to track the location of smartphone users around the world. The NSA stated that the collection of data is lawful.
What Does the Future Hold for Us?
GPS tracking devices are no longer a luxury gadget. Thus, the software and equipment needed to perform location tracking isn’t limited to large corporations and governments any longer.
With increasingly more advanced technologies, tracking systems are widely spread and active in transport, construction, engineering, retail and service sectors of less sizeable companies and agencies.
In the future, GPS tracking will increase its accuracy and for many businesses optimize productivity and efficiency. The gadgets will become significantly smaller and also cheaper.
We, as smartphone users, should consider disabling location tracking feature more often on your mobile device as a solution. However, this would only be partly effective considering there are multiple channels of GPS tracking.
Users should be better protected against the potential of privacy invasion in the future and laws and regulations should limit the availability of sensitive data to companies of any size, but also the government itself.
Bill here from PixelPrivacy.com. My blog is all about making the world of online security accessible to everyone. I pride myself in writing guides that I’m certain even my own mom could read! Be sure to head over to my blog if you’re interested in keeping your private information just that: Private!