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In this feature, we take a look at how a multi-billion-dollar market obtains, uses, and sells our location data.

Report

A GVR report estimates that the global location intelligence market was worth USD 12.2 billion in 2020. This market uses our phone/device location data. There are many different interlinked players in this market ecosystem from app companies, collectors, data aggregators, marketplaces, and location intelligence firms, all of whom buy, compile, sell and use our phone location data, ultimately for advertising, analytics, investment strategy, or marketing purposes. The market’s continued growth has been fuelled by factors like the growing penetration of smart devices and portable navigation devices, web-mapping services, as well as the growth of the IoT and the smartphone app market and network infrastructure.

Why and How Is Location Data Collected?

The answers to this question are connected. Examples of some of the main reasons why, and the ways that our location data is collected include:

– Apps are a major source of location data collection. Smartphone apps e.g., those that give directions, weather/meteorological apps (need to give you local weather conditions) need your location data for good reasons i.e., to operate correctly and deliver appropriate results. Also, video-streaming apps need to check user location to decide whether a person is in a country where it’s licensed to stream certain shows. In any case, it is likely that when you install these apps, you will agree to share your location.

– Software Development Kits (SDKs), for example, are tools and code provided by a company to enable and encourage developers to write code for a platform can have built-in location data supply features. For example, Foursquare makes a free SDK which could (potentially) track location through any app that uses it. 

What Happens To The Data After Collection?

Apps sell the data to other players in the location intelligence market. This could be anything from third-party companies that specialise in selling location data, or access to it, to advertisers, marketers, and data brokers, other location data providers, and even governments. For example, vox.com (Feb 2021) reported that app trackers secretly sell location data to the government (or/for its agencies) and that Google can’t stop trackers in its apps from selling location data to the (US) government. Examples of where the data is sold after collection by apps includes:

– Data Aggregators, who collect the data from many thousands of different apps, combine it with data from other sources, and sell that data onwards e.g., AdSquare or Cuebiq.

– Data brokers, who buy and sell and sell the data.

– Data analysis companies e.g., Advan Research, who analyse the data and sell it on.

– Location intelligence firms. These specialised companies sell geolocation analyses to bigger corporate clients e.g., hedge funds and venture capital and private equity firms.

What The Data Is Used For?

Our location data (which may have been aggregated and analysed) is used for many different end purposes, and there are many companies in the location intelligence ecosystem involved in making location monitoring capabilities and tools.

Some examples of how our location data may be used include:

– Property firms, hedge funds and retail businesses using the data for their own advertising, analytics, and marketing.

– Advertisers/advertising platforms using the data for targeting ads.

– Market intelligence companies using the data to highlight patterns and trends.

Examples of how location monitoring capabilities and tools are being developed include:

– Grand View Research (GVR) reports that some of the big investors in location intelligence technologies include Google, ESRI, Qualcomm, AT&T, Intel, and Apple. This area of location intelligence is more concerned with integrating real-time location monitoring capabilities in devices (smartphones, vehicles, and aircraft) to allow businesses to improve marketing or optimise business operations.

– Industries such as utility and energy, retail, transportation, telecom, and manufacturing use location intelligence tools to help with management and increase productivity and profitability.

Is It Legal?

In consenting to allow apps to use a person’s location (e.g. for its correct operation), this is legal, although it may be the case that there are a number of other T&Cs, most likely in the privacy policy, that users quickly sign-up to that they may not have the time or inclination to read, but may give a wider scope of consent than they would like.

Although consent may be given to apps for sharing location data, and sharing data for specific related purposes, there are many cases where legal objections have been filed and investigations have taken place into who location has been shared with. For example:

– Feb 2019, City of Los Angeles sued The Weather Channel for allegedly using its app to mine users’ private geolocation data and sending it to IBM affiliates and third parties for advertising and commercial purposes unrelated to weather.

– In June 2020, US Members of Congress opened an investigation into a data analytics company Venntel. The company aggregates location data from smartphone apps (games and weather forecast apps) and the investigation related to allegations that the company may have been selling people’s location data to government agencies such as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The rapid growth of the Internet, smartphone ownership, the IoT, the growing app market, and the potential for profit have fuelled the development of a whole location intelligence industry and ecosystem. This in itself has created opportunities for many different kinds of businesses that buy, sell, aggregate, analyse, and use location data. Businesses across the world use data and information, which includes a contribution from location data, as the basis for strategies, tactics and campaigns that deliver profits and as such, it is clear to see how our location data helps to feed the business world in a positive way. The questions and uneasiness about location details being gathered, bought, and sold, however, relate more about matters of privacy and ethics. Low consent rates in apps asking for locations, the knowledge that seemingly anonymous data from one source could be combined and aggregated from other sources to potentially identify us/identify more about us, and the idea that privacy policies (that we don’t have time to read) can include things that we would question, all add up to a feeling of uneasiness and mistrust.  Just as tracking cookies are being rejected, questions are now rightly being asked about what apps are sharing, who they are sharing it with, and for what purpose. Location intelligence is an area that has such complex connections between players in the market, that transparency and further regulation is some way off.

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