The Double-Edged Sword of Geolocation Services
There are several concerns that users have when it comes to geolocation services and their privacy. Privacy laws like GDPR and CCPA show that savvy users are concerned about their data and online privacy, and as an application or website owner, you must do your due diligence to address those concerns.
Convenience vs. Privacy: The Trade-Off
On the one hand, geolocation services allow apps to provide valuable convenience to users’ daily lives: social media, restaurant apps, review apps, ride-sharing services, vacation rentals...all of these require user location data to work. Many other apps also use user location to serve content in the correct language or show the right currency conversion.
How Geolocation Data Can Be Misused
Unfortunately, it’s easy for companies to exploit this convenience. Here are the main ways in which geographical location data can be misused:
- Mishandling: Many instances have surfaced in which geolocation app developers sold user geolocation data to third parties without the users’ consent. This abuse of your users’ trust leads to brand damage not only for you but for all geolocation-based apps and sites.
- Surveillance: It’s rare but possible for geolocation apps to inadvertently allow governments or other organizations to surveil users. Many users feel uncomfortable about allowing an app or device to constantly monitor their physical location.
- Cybersecurity threats: By exploiting weaknesses in an app’s security, hackers and cybercriminals can use sensitive user data to gain access to online accounts like bank accounts and perpetrate identity theft.
- Harassment: Individuals with malicious intent can abuse location-based apps to use real-time geolocation tracking for stalking and harassment.
Strategies for Protecting Your Geolocation Privacy
As a mobile app developer, it is up to you to adhere to the best data collection practices and ensure the safety and privacy of your users. As a user, there are several ways to protect your online identity.
Utilizing VPNs for Anonymity
The easiest way to protect yourself online is to use a VPN for web browsing. Most reputable VPN services also offer apps for mobile devices, so you can protect your data while using apps over either Wi-Fi or cellular data too!
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) encrypts your network traffic and prevents apps, websites, your ISP, and potential bad actors from tracking your data. Some of the best VPNs out there include SurfShark, Express, Nord, and Windscribe.
Managing App Permissions and Settings
Most apps will give you the option to protect your personal data privacy by not allowing the app to track you at all times (or ever.) If privacy is a concern of yours, go to your smartphone’s settings and disable location tracking for the app. You can also opt-in to having the app track your location only when you are using it, rather than all the time (this will also save your battery.)
The Role of Privacy Tools and Techniques
Other privacy tools like Tor networks are similar to VPNs, but rather than encrypting your network requests, they send the requests through a series of proxy servers to anonymize the request and obfuscate the data’s origin.)
You can also use APIs to find and delete your personal data from certain services or encrypt your email messages, calendar, and productivity tools like Google Drive.
The Future of Privacy in Geolocation Technology
As online technology becomes better, smarter, and faster, IP geolocation data will only become more useful. Fortunately, the ways in which we are able to protect it will also improve.
Emerging Technologies for Enhanced Privacy
Artificial intelligence can already be used to geolocate images - for example, determine where a photo was taken simply by examining the physical location pictured in the photo. This is an example of the disconcertingly powerful nature of AI.
However, AI solutions can also save valuable time in detecting security issues. AI can identify shadow data, monitor for breaches in data access, and alert cybersecurity professionals about potential threats in real time.
Other Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) include homomorphic encryption, secure multi-party computation (SMPC), zero-knowledge proofs, and cryptographic algorithms that attempt to embody data protection rules by minimizing personal data use, maximizing data security, and empowering individuals to take control of their personal data.
The Impact of Regulations on Geolocation Data
As previously mentioned, GDPR in the EU and the CCPA in California are proof that users and the public in general support stringent regulation for data privacy and protection. It is up to companies who use geolocation data to comply with these privacy laws. That includes making sure that any APIs or other geolocation services you use comply as well.
For example, if it turns out that the geolocation API you use has been selling your users’ data to a third party, you will still be on the hook for using that service. Do your due diligence upfront to determine the ethical validity of your services.
Best Practices for Enterprises Handling Geolocation Data
There are several ways in which you can ensure that your organization is correctly handling users’ private data.
- Determine which laws and regulations apply to your business
- Gain explicit consent from users before collecting their geolocation data
- Place limits on data collection
- Update your privacy policies to contain language addressing geolocation data specifically, and make your privacy policies easily available to users
- Anonymize individuals’ geolocation data
Conclusion: Balancing Benefits and Privacy Concerns
Geolocation data provides a convenient way to improve your users’ daily lives - however, that convenience comes at the risk of increased privacy concerns. As a user, the best way to protect yourself online is to use a VPN service. As an app developer, it is up to you to ensure that your users’ data is protected and that you are adhering to all geolocation and data privacy best practices and regulations.
What is IP geolocation and how does it work?
IP geolocation uses a user’s IP address to look up their physical location. IP geolocation databases contain tables where an IP address range can be linked to a geographical radius. It can’t tell you the precise location of a user, but it can tell you the country, region, city, and zip code.
How can I prevent apps from tracking my location?
The best way to prevent apps from tracking your location is to turn off location tracking for specific apps through your mobile device’s settings. You can also ask the app to only track you when you are using it. The exact way to do this differs between operating systems, so look for your specific device’s instructions online.
What are the latest privacy laws affecting geolocation data?
Privacy laws in the US are implemented on a state-by-state basis. Currently, California, Virginia, Colorado, Utah, Connecticut, Iowa, Indiana, Texas, Florida, Montana, Oregon, and Delaware have specific privacy laws.