Neptune Navigate Blog

Tips for online safety, security, and responsible digital citizenship for parents, kids, and families.

Why Geotracking is a Growing Threat to Online Privacy

April 15, 2021

Location apps are super handy. I use location services to get an Uber, map myself to a destination, find a good restaurant in a new city, and even track my kids when they’re away from home (don’t tell them!). While all of these are conveniences technology provides, it’s really important to know the risks involved.

Using location based data can threaten your online privacy and make you vulnerable to potential physical harm. So, how do people track you? Your location can be tracked through an IP address from a computer, Wi-Fi signals, cellular towers and GPS. There are more than 1,000 apps that use location tracking devices, and some can even track you when your location data is turned off. You can also be tracked by what you post online. Your “check-ins”, profile city, photos, etc. all give away personal data about you. In fact, most cell phones have automatic “geotag” for every picture you take.

So you may be wondering “Why is this such a big deal anyway?” Well, let me just tell you. Whenever you allow location tracking on your phone, there is a constant gathering of personal information about you. That information can disclose your real-time locations with amazing accuracy.  Reporters for the New York Times described how they were able to track a woman and gather a ton of information about her just by looking at the location data from her cell phone.

“An app on the device gathered her location information, which was then sold without her knowledge. It recorded her whereabouts as often as every two seconds, according to a database of more than a million phones in the New York area that was reviewed by The New York Times.” The woman’s identity was not disclosed in those records, but they were able to easily connect her to that dot. “The app tracked her as she went to a Weight Watchers meeting and to her dermatologist’s office for a minor procedure. It followed her hiking with her dog and staying at her ex-boyfriend’s home, information she found disturbing.”

While location tracking is most often used by marketing companies to track consumer behavior and then use that information for geo-targeted ads, it can also put you at risk for physical harm.  We all go about our day with our phones in our pockets, purses or backpacks. Even though we may not even be on our phone, it’s still tracking where we go and when. “The availability of this kind of detailed information puts you at risk for stalking or harassment. For example, if you visit the same pastry shop every Sunday morning, then someone who is tracking your movements will be able to identify the best time and place to confront you. Importantly, it also tells thieves where you won’t be every Sunday morning, thus notifying them of the best time to rob you.”

So, what do you do?  First of all, keep your whereabouts as private as possible by disabling geo-tracking on all apps and devices.  In addition to disabling location tracking, you should narrow down your friends list so that only people you trust have access to your information. Take advantage of the maximum security offered by whatever site you use. Don’t share your daily schedule or publicly post “check-ins” and NEVER share anything that suggests your home is unoccupied.

With all of the conveniences, there are real dangers to be aware of. The old saying “the best defense is a good offense” applies here.