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I tried to understand location tracking. It’s nearly impossible

I discovered that even when it’s collected in a way that protects privacy, location data ultimately helps companies more than people.

I tried to understand location tracking. It’s nearly impossible

Earlier this month, Foursquare launched a special feature for users in Austin, Texas, called Hypertrending. The idea was to show off the company’s location tracking technology to attendees of the South by Southwest conference by creating a heat map of the city. The Hypertrending map ranked all of the public places in Austin based on how many people were in each location; during the conference, the Austin Convention Center was ranked first, with the local airport and the University of Texas second and third. You could also look at the most crowded restaurants, events, and nightlife–ostensibly to understand which places were happening and which weren’t.

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The experiment was only accessible in Austin and for the two weeks of the conference. And though it may have seemed innocuous to some, it also raised larger questions: Did Foursquare’s app really have enough users to create an accurate heat map? Was the company getting data from other sources, too? How else is the company using this data? A company blog post said that Hypertrending was similar to the dashboards of Foursquare’s advertising and analytics products. Does that mean that Foursquare is selling location data to advertisers and companies that purchase its analytics software? What does Foursquare–which many still think of as that viral city guide app that launched in 2009–do these days, anyway?

[Image: Foursquare]

Within the last year, new light has been shed on the shady world of location tracking. An explosive New York Times investigation revealing the granular location data that is collected by hundreds of popular apps, including the Weather Channel app, which doesn’t tell users that it is sharing their location data with advertisers on the typical consent screen. Google has been secretly tracking people’s location data for years. Even privacy-focused Apple has gotten into hot water over its handling of location data; iOS users often have little choice, and must dig through their settings to protect themselves. Cellphone service providers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were caught earlier this year selling location data to bounty hunters. Though many companies argue that they are protecting user privacy by anonymizing personal information, researchers have shown just how easy it is to re-identify it. Much of this data is used for mobile ad-targeting–that can mean Facebook serving you an ad based on the fact that your phone is located in Austin, Texas, or it could mean a law firm that is targeting ads for personal injury lawyers to anonymous people who are inside emergency rooms.

I tried to unravel how location data fits into Foursquare’s services, an experience that offered a glimpse into the emerging economy of user location data. Co-founder and chairman Dennis Crowley answered all my questions in an effort to prove that Foursquare is what he calls a “good actor” in a space full of shady companies. But what Foursquare does is much more complicated than good or bad.

Where is all this data coming from, anyway?

Hypertrending was built off a developer tool called Pilgrim SDK that Foursquare launched in 2017. This tool–which Foursquare licenses–allows developers to turn on contextual awareness in their apps. That means that developers using Pilgrim can send users notifications or show them information based on their location. For instance, if you download the app of a pizza brand that pays Foursquare to use Pilgrim in its own pizza-ordering app, and you’ve set your phone’s location tracking to “always on,” that pizza app might send you a notification with a coupon to order pizza when it sees that you’re at home on a Saturday night.

Foursquare also uses Pilgrim in its own apps, Foursquare City Guide and Swarm, to provide notifications and suggestions based on users’ location, if users have set their location tracking turned on.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]
(Foursquare’s Pilgrim partners are distinct from its API and database partners, which includes companies like Twitter, Uber, Snapchat, and Apple. These companies use Foursquare’s location database to provide location-related services like geotagging or associated business names.)

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But Pilgrim helps Foursquare use all the location data of users who opt-in to location tracking in both its own apps and some of the apps that use Pilgrim. Foursquare packages this data into advertising and analytics dashboards to help companies understand the places that its customers or slices of the population are frequenting. All the data is anonymized and aggregated and it only includes places that your phone has stopped for any length of time–predominantly public spaces and businesses. That’s what Hypertrending visualizes. The heat map also doesn’t include any information on what Foursquare deems “sensitive places,” like homes, workplaces, religious centers, divorce lawyer offices, and more. Crowley says that no advertisers or analytics platform users have access to any of that information either. All they would see are trends based on a general pool of data.

Who is actually in this dataset? Anyone who has downloaded a Foursquare app or some Foursquare partner apps (the company doesn’t disclose how many it has) and has set location tracking to “always on.” In the United States, that’s 10 million people. You might be included in this dataset and have no idea (though Crowley says his team works hard to include clear language around consent in partner apps’ terms of service). Foursquare’s SDK partners include Accuweather and TripAdvisor. If you’ve set location tracking to always on in either of those apps, there’s a chance you’re sending your location data to Foursquare, too.

After this story published, Foursquare reached out to say that the company does not disclose which SDK partner apps send location data back to them, and that only some do. However, there’s no way for users to know which apps use Foursquare’s SDK besides the few apps that disclose it, nor are users privy to which partner apps are sending data back to Foursquare and which aren’t–unless they dig through a lot of terms of service agreements. This directly contradicts Foursquare’s claim to care about transparency and privacy.

Why do we even need location tracking in the first place?

What is Foursquare’s goal with Hypertrending, which offered people a glimpse at just how ubiquitous and accurate locating tracking is? “Users need to trust us,” Crowley says. “If users don’t trust us, we’re not going to get anything done here.” But why should anyone trust Foursquare? If you’re like me, it’s unpleasant to find out that Foursquare might know the exact location of my cell phone at all times because I use Accuweather as my primary weather app and have location tracking turned on while I use the app (excuse me while I go change my settings). While Foursquare’s apps are more transparent than many others that track location data about what they’ll be using your data for, the company’s partners aren’t necessarily.

Crowley acknowledged that Foursquare is currently relying on consent forms to ensure that people understand how their technology is working–which is a problem, since no one reads or understands these forms. He also conceded that the company shouldn’t expect people to be educated about how location tracking works in partner apps. After all, it took multiple interviews for me to comprehend the difference between the company’s different products and audiences and how it all impacts users.

But trying to understand this one product leads to a much bigger question: Why should people share their location data at all? What use does it have?

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[Image: Foursquare]
There are some obvious ways that location data is helpful. It’s used in mapping and transportation apps like Google Maps and Lyft to help people get around. But Foursquare’s Pilgrim SDK is a layer removed from that, since its location data is primarily beneficial to developers who want to build a cool location-aware feature into their product, third-party companies that are trying to understand trends in how people move through the world, and advertisers who want to see how their ads impact people’s behavior.

So what good does it actually do for the people who are providing this data? If you make the privacy trade-off to constantly share your location data with Foursquare (or any of the myriad apps that are hungry for it), what do you get in return?

Maybe you get a reminder to order pizza when you’re home on a Saturday night. Maybe you can buy a light that turns off when you leave home because it recognizes your phone’s no longer at your apartment. Maybe when you go to a new city you get a notification with recommendations for coffee shops you might like based on the places you frequent in your hometown.

To Crowley, of course, the trade-off is worth it. He recalls the countless times when he’s been at the airport and Foursquare’s Swarm app has sent him a message letting him know a friend was just a few gates away. He tells the story of wandering around the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo with his wife when he got a notification from Foursquare City Guide that led him into the basement of a store where there was a photo booth that alters your image in real time so you look like an anime character. To him, this is the future.

“It’s like imagining life without the internet,” he says. “In five years, it’ll seem crazy that your device doesn’t understand the context that you’re in and the history of places that you’ve been to.”

But what these features have to offer are small, incremental improvements to an already comfortable life. Instead of solving pressing problems, they seem to serve the interests of companies and advertisers more than the interests of users, even if the data is collected in a way that protects privacy from a company that’s trying to be a good actor. For users, this is a supremely unfair deal. We give up our location data and in return we get coffee shop recommendations.

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In the end, it’ll take government regulation to ensure that companies are more transparent about where your data is going–and that users have the opportunity to indicate what third parties they approve of and which they don’t. The Vermont data law has already brought more than a hundred data brokers to light, helping consumers make more informed decisions about their privacy. Right now, the best thing you can do as a user is go through location settings on your phone and make sure most, if not all, of your settings ensure that a company can only get access to your location data while you’re using their app, or not at all.

And if you decide to leave location tracking always on, you now know one of the most intimate things about you–your location–is out of your hands.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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