Image is illustrative. Darwin Laganzon (Pixabay)

Data collection and privacy issues

The 21st century had its very own industrial revolution with the internet and all its communication pathways. It also created a new perspective on people, charged by the massive amounts of data collected through the use of it, leading to the saying “data is the oil of the 21st century” (Martínez, 2019). Putting an item in the shopping cart of an online shop? It’s logged. Watch a video? Your cookies put it in your media list. Uploading a photo? Algorithms identify the content, recognize faces and link them to the respective accounts (Sebastian Schuon) . Almost all platforms we use on the internet save and process user data to an enormous extend (Curran, 2018) .

This leads to a situation where the biggest companies have pseudo-anonymized profiles of shopping habits, hobbies, interpersonal networks and media consumed. These profiles are so detailed that they can conclude personal information, without ever receiving them. An experiment showed that an algorithm is more likely to guess a user’s sexuality than their closest friends (Wang, 2017) .

Furthermore users do loose control about what information is out there about them. Big data sets are processed by the biggest companies in the world with unknown outcome for the users. Marketing is now focused on personalized, targeted advertisement, showing the products to the users, which they are most likely to pick up (Folgate, 2018) . In addition to that endless lists with user profiles and personal data are being sold on the black market, primarily to scam users (Patterson, 2019)

Youth workers struggle with these things similar to young people. Many young people fear the risks of the internet but deem it unavoidable and essential to their life to partake in (Meike Otternberg, 2018) . Hence youth work should provide better understanding of what happens with personal data, how it is processed and used to target young people. It should inform about save pathways to navigate the net without leaving too many traces and join the conversation on how to protect at risk groups from the overwhelming effects of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019) .

Tracking & GPS services

Global Positioning Systems, mostly known as GPS, are maintained by the government of the United States of America. Though initially created for military use in 1989 by Ronald Reagan for directional accuracy, it was later taken into public use (Ross, 2018). A constellation of 24 operational satellites and three failsafe satellites orbit the Earth and help GPS receivers, such as the ones in your car and phone, determine an accurate location through trilateration (Bonsor, 2020). Nowadays, we use GPS to find buildings we have never seen, plan journeys and position in real-time (Ross, 2018), and with the shortcomings in accuracy mostly fixed with Differential GPS (DGPS), entire industries in logistics and navigation depend on it.

Location tracking does not just refer to GPS technology, though. Location-based systems use a combination of GPS, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), like the battery-less microchips attached to consumer goods, Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) that pass data over radio waves such as your Wi-Fi router and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that capture, store, analyse and report geographic information (Bonsor, 2020).

As long as you have a mobile, whether you have a smartphone or not, you can be located as your phone registers your location with cell networks several times a minute (Crump, 2011).

Thought-provoking exercise – see what location data exists about you

  • Twitter users can try out PleaseRobMe – a website made to raise awareness about oversharing by drawing out all the geotags (coordinates of a location attached to content such as videos, photos or text posts on social media) on your Tweets. 
  • Gmail users need to find ‘Details’ under the phrase ‘Last account activity’ on the bottom right-hand corner of any Gmail page and can see devices used with the location.
  • Facebook users will find login history under the ‘Security’ section of ‘Settings’. 
  • iPhone users can find out about the Significant Locations their phones have stored in their location history (find out how here).

If they know where I am, can they identify who I am?

There are obvious benefits to this invasion of privacy, such as being found quickly in an emergency and being able to locate lost mobile phones, cars and laptops, but also the convenience of using location-based apps such as Tinder or Bumble to find friends or food delivery apps to find dinner. 

With all the advantages of location tracking, it is also pushing the boundaries of how much privacy are we willing to sacrifice in the name of security. 

Features such as check-ins on social media apps reveal daily schedules and locations to everyone, which might include potential criminals. Amazon announced a one-year moratorium in letting the police force use its facial recognition technology Rekognition (Matsakis, 2020) amidst growing concerns over law enforcement misuse and racial discrimination (Barrett, 2018). 

Tracking children and mentally impaired patients has led to worries on whether trusting a device instead of a person does not simply amplify the anxiety in both the one doing the tracking and the one being tracked (Grose, 2020). Geotagging has led to ‘overtourism’, which affects the local environment if the places don’t have the infrastructure to support thousands of visitors, as happened with Horseshoe Bend, Bogle Seeds Farm and Kaaterskill Falls in the United States (Djossa, 2019). 

Even anonymised location data can help identify and gain information about a person if at least one de-anonymised dataset is used alongside to match trajectories (Kondor, Hashemian, de Montjoye, Ratti, 2018), and as it is not probable that two people would have the exact same trajectories over an extended period of time, this means that it is possible to find out who you are based on where you are, if and when tracked for long enough.

What can I do to protect my privacy?

How to avoid having my location tracked without my knowledge and make sure the tracking and harvesting of mass location data won’t get out of hand? 

First of all, educate yourself and those around you. Applying critical thinking for long enough to not blindly accept all conditions in the apps we download or accept all cookies on the websites we visit can make a positive difference in your personal data privacy. 

Second, put your newfound knowledge in practice in your personal life. Most apps have either information available online or help available on how to get the app to only store the data you would like it to. Smartphones also have an option in the app management section to handpick which apps can track you whilst you’re not using the app – have a look through your privacy settings with the paranoia of someone who has something to hide, even if you don’t. With data brokers emerging everywhere, the odds are stacked against you.

Third, engage as a citizen. Whether that means voting according to your beliefs, canvassing for politicians who further your agenda or joining a grassroots movement in the third sector to further your interests, getting involved is the best way to make sure something gets done. 

Waiting for tech companies who benefit from location tracking the most to take responsibility would mean denying the essence of capitalism. Waiting on the government to push for legislative changes that would arguably reduce tax revenue from said tech giants without any civic agenda would showcase naivete. But rolling up your sleeves and starting with sharing knowledge-based information on the matter on your social media accounts is a noticeable leap forwards. 


Martin Fischer
Martin Fischer

Martin Fischer is a media and game educator. Coming originally from a political education background he created the gameoverhate initiative and various digital engagement possibilities for young people with interest in Internet governance. Currently he runs project for vulnerable youth using digital games to enhance digital and social competences.