Consumers Consider Third-Party Use of Personal Location Data as Privacy Violations

In the study, the duration of the collection of data did not matter to respondents once it was explained what the collector would know about them as a result. Respondents initially were concerned about the length of time location data was being gathered but stopped caring once it was explained the collector would know they went shopping or to a restaurant with friends.   

“Two things stood out,” Martin said. “Respondents clearly differentiated the collection of location data to track if they voted or attended a rally as different from locating them at, say, a restaurant or store. They definitely were not OK with location data being used to locate them voting or protesting. And this study was run two years ago before today’s major protests, so I would imagine it would be vastly more pronounced if conducted today.  

“Also, just including the place where the person would be located — at a restaurant, mall, school or work — was enough to skew the rating as less OK. In other words, asking respondents just about collecting location data without explaining what you want to know about them is meaningless. Where they were located and what the company could infer about them — who their friends were or if they attended a rally — were much more important.”

Interestingly, the study showed that regardless of whether or not people were comfortable with the data being collected, it never really mattered to them what type of technology was used to collect it.

“Collection technologies we used in our study included phone, mapping app, license-plate reader, Fitbit, CCTV and social media posts,” Martin said. “The impact was minimal or nonexistent when we varied the technology. This is important because we often focus on techniques to collect location data. For example, collecting from a Fitbit might be OK but not from a phone. Respondents do not see any difference in their expectation of privacy across types of technology. So if users say they don’t want location data gathered from their phone, getting location from their Bluetooth signal, an app or social media posts is problematic overall. They don’t want you to have it no matter what source is used.”  

Take TikTok’s recent media scrutiny, for example. Martin said its tactics are no different from standard social media data collection practices and that banning or selling that company would do nothing to diminish the privacy violations occurring on people’s smartphones every day.

The study asked a national sample of people to rate a vignette as to the degree that a particular type of collection was acceptable. It included varied specifics about who collected the data — family, data aggregator, employer, FBI, online company, etc. — and what the collector could learn about the individual as a result.

“This information is important for regulators in protecting location data, as well as the companies collecting the data,” Martin said. “For regulators, respondents did not care about technology, yet we tend to regulate by a type of collecting technology or ask for consent for only one type of technology. This would suggest that individuals do not think that way and assume location data is generally protected if they have requested it for one type.

“Perhaps most importantly, data aggregators who collect location data should be worried if individuals ever get any say as to the collection of their data. Consumers clearly do not trust them,” Martin said.