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).
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.
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.