Not only do websites like Google and Facebook track your moves online and sell them to advertisers, but smartphones track your daily movements and know where you are at any given time.
The concept of smartphones’ storing data about where you go and when is a concern of Kirk Goldsberry, a geography professor at Michigan State University.
Last spring, two U.K. researchers discovered that Apple’s iPhone tracks its users’ location with a time stamp. That information can be kept in the phone for up to a year and transferred to any computer the phone gets synced to.
“In my case when I was working at MSU, my movement patterns were being stored on my iPhone and being synced in my work computer and that info was then the property of MSU,” Goldsberry said.
Goldsberry wanted to learn more about the location data his phone was tracking about him. He then mapped out six months of his own cross-country movements that were stored on his iPhone.
“What I wanted to do was look at those files and look at what info was possible to glean from those date files. What could I tell about myself and life from these files in my iPhone data,” Goldsberry said.
Goldsberry found that the tracking data could tell him what airports he had been to, what hotels he stayed at, and could figure out which baseball game he attended while on a trip to Seattle.
Some may argue that this information is meaningless, but Goldsberry said that this information could impact a lot of people.
“There are numerous cases of jealous spouses who can use this information to track them,” Goldsberry said. “What is really critical in 2012 is if the Syrian government or less democratic countries get a hold of his data, this information can be exploited by very powerful entities.”
Goldsberry said he considers this type of information gathering a threat to privacy.
“The biggest thing for me is if I were to follow you around for five days, that would be against the law, but essentially I can do that now without the trench coat and hiding behind the bushes,” Goldsberry said. “These technologies are helping people virtually stalk people.”
The tracking information inside of smartphones is very valuable when it comes to advertising.
According to Goldsberry’s blog, his iPhone’s location data could be used to tell if there was a Starbucks nearby and create an ad to let him know.
“Pair this information with information with my credit card activity and you know a lot about what I do, what I buy, when I buy, and where I buy,” Goldsberry wrote.
And that’s exactly what sites like Facebook and Google are already doing. They can sell user’s information to advertisers so ads can target specific users.
Patricia Huddleston, an MSU retailing professor, said targeted ads make sense and seem to be working. She said mobile commerce went up 25 percent this past holiday season compared to the previous year.
“If you are Google or Facebook, you want to target the sweet spot and want to target consumers that are more likely to purchase a product or service,” Huddleston said.
Emilee Rader is a professor at MSU who teaches a course in digital privacy. She said sites like Facebook can make money off of what users post.
“The value of the company is based on advertiser belief that Facebook is the holy grail of behavioral data,” Rader said.
Google’s privacy settings were changed last month. Rader said the changes would allow Google to be able to predict its users’ next moves.
All of that can happen with the combination of location tracking on Android phones, the e-mails sent through Gmail, the events logged in Google calendar, and web habits.
Google’s new privacy settings went into effect March 1.