The use of geodata on mobile devices

Data generated by smartphones or tablets give away more than our location

Smartphones know where we are and what keeps us busy. Business with the thus generated data is booming.

Smartphones don’t just know where we are, but also who we are talking to and what we are concerned about. Tracking customers and creating profiles by using geodata has become a profitable business. Not, however, for the users of the devices who give away their data – often unwillingly. The intention of this short ITA-study was to examine the use of geodata generated by consumers using their mobile devices.

Apps don't leave us a choice

Modern operating systems for mobile devices facilitate the use of third-party applications, so called apps, to expand their primary functionality. These apps are downloaded for free or for a small amount of money and installed by users. Providers selling the applications state that they have a quality check in place to protect the consumers from malware or programs spying on the users' data. But eventually the consumer is expected to make an informed decision about using the app based on the knowledge about what kind of data this program will collect, use or disseminate, and in some cases decide which constraints the operating system should set in order to prohibit the program's access to data generated by the sensor hardware of the device. Monitoring the apps' functionality is often not possible before or after their installation.

Our research showed that a lot of apps collect and submit geodata to third parties, even if they don’t need the data to provide the functionality. It’s a form of surveillance that aims to collect more information about behaviour and habits of customers – often without their consent or even knowledge.

Conclusion: ITA’s report explains the technical details and the economic background of this development and illustrates the individual and societal consequences. We developed recommendations for the important stakeholders in this field, such as consumers, policy makers, data protection organisations or manufacturers. Those recommendations are meant to help counter negative dynamics, ie surveillance and depletion of customers or the loss of trust in legislation.

Apps collect our data and very often sell it to advertising networks
01/2012 - 08/2012