How to Protect Your Location Privacy

Spring 2020

By Dara Seidl ’10

Dara Seidl ’10

Our location is in demand. Constantly collected and leaked from our devices, a thorough history of our daily trajectories is available to companies and individuals who want it. Marketers use location data to classify us into categories for targeted advertising based on where we visited. Insurance (auto and health) companies buy location data to predict risk among customers and set rates. Location histories are also used for openly nefarious reasons, including identity theft, stalking, and targeting empty homes for burglary.

Geoprivacy, or location privacy, is the right to control how and the extent to which your location is shared with others. Short of dumping your smartphone and never going online again, there are steps you can take to protect your location privacy in our state of hyperconnectivity.

On Your Phone

Delete or deny permissions to apps that are unnecessarily collecting your location. For example, you don’t need to share your location while using a flashlight, and you can still check the weather without giving away your GPS coordinates. These types of location collections are built in to be sold to data companies. On Apple phones, you can see which applications have been accessing your location under Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services. For Android, go to Settings, then Location, then App Permission.

Turning off Location Services is a helpful step, but it does not prevent your phone’s location from being tracked. Last year, news broke that cell service providers were selling real-time cell tower location data while location services were turned off, a technology only supposed to be used to locate 911 callers in an emergency. Device locations are also collected when they come within range of Wi-Fi beacons and Bluetooth receivers. One way to avoid this is to turn off your smartphone when on the go, or to consider using a Faraday bag, which blocks wireless signals. 

On Your Computer

Your IP address and internet searches also give away location. Consider using a privacy-forward browser and search engine for your online activity. Try out extensions such as DuckDuckGo, Ghostery, Brave, Firefox, or Safari to prevent ad tracking. You can also change the location associated with your internet use. To change your IP address, and thereby mask your location, use VPN or Tor technology to encrypt and pass your internet activity through a different IP address linked to a faraway location.

Once you start to plug the location data leaks from your devices, you can turn to cleaning up your personal data that are already out there. Remove yourself from data broker websites, which may have your name, age, ethnicity, previous addresses, relatives, inferred political affiliations, and estimated income and wealth. Spokeo, Pipl, SuperDataProfiles, and InstantCheckmate are just a few of the hundreds of data brokers out there. These sites typically have an opt-out page.

In the Physical World

When out and about, your time-stamped location may be captured by surveillance cameras, automated license plate readers, and credit card swipes. Facial recognition technology has a known high error rate and can lead to false identification, including for crimes. To prevent recognition by surveillance cameras, artists such as Adam Harvey and Kate Rose have developed clothing and accessories designed to trip up facial recognition technology. 

When making purchases, use cash and opt out of mobile-payment platforms, such as Square. These systems sell data on your location, what you bought, when you bought it, and your spending habits. For example, after visiting a psychologist’s office, you might receive targeted ads for mental health treatments. In at least one case, a woman received targeted maternity ads at her home before she told her family she was pregnant. Mobile location data are also being purchased by political campaigns to attempt to turn voters, such as those who attend particular events or protests.

Finally, advocate for stricter privacy regulations for companies that package and sell your location data without knowledge or consent by writing to your representatives.

Dara Seidl ’10 is a 2019–20 EthicalGEO Fellow selected by the American Geographical Society. Seven fellows were awarded $7,500 each to pursue their “big idea” or project to address ethics in the use of geospatial tools and technology. Seidl is creating a series of short films to help educators teach geoprivacy in high school and college classrooms, thereby serving as a springboard for discussion of privacy issues related to modern location capture technologies. A 2018 PhD graduate of the joint doctoral program in geography between San Diego State University and the University of California at Santa Barbara, Seidl is a researcher focused on the intersections between privacy and Geographic Information Systems.

For further reading: Privacy Matters, by Aleta Mayne