Facebook is taking a vacuum cleaner to one of your larger breadcrumb trails on the social network: Starting later this summer, it will whoosh away the location histories of its users.
Facebook parent Meta Platforms broke this significant news in a weirdly quiet way, notifying users via in-app prompts and emails but not making public announcements.
A message sent to one Facebook user led with news of the imminent shutdown of features that rely on its background location tracking: Nearby Friends (a 2014-vintage option to have Facebook notify you when pals who had also opted into it were in your vicinity), and weather alerts (there are better apps to ping you about the chance of rain).
The message went on to say that Facebook’s apps would stop recording location data in the background on May 31—and after August 1, the company would delete people’s location history.
That would make for Facebook’s biggest bulk deletion of data since its decision in November of 2021 to shut down its facial-recognition system and wipe the database it had built from that.
Emil Vazquez, a Meta spokesperson, said in an email that the company was turning off these features “due to low usage.”
Privacy advocates welcomed the news. “Reducing the collection of this kind of data on these apps is great,” says Dhanaraj Thakur, research director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington non-profit. He’d know: He co-wrote a report published in December outlining how law-enforcement and intelligence agencies buy location data as a workaround for due-process requirements.
Unfortunately, as that report made clear, the problem isn’t so much Facebook—which keeps its user data to itself so it alone can sell access to its audience by demographic, interest and other criteria—but smaller data brokers that often obtain demographic data by embedding their code in other mobile apps.
And unlike Facebook (and Google), which each let users view, edit, download and delete their location histories, these third parties allow no such control.
“Our concern goes beyond Facebook,” Thakur said. “The data broker ecosystem in general is so opaque, and there are so many actors involved.”
The wireless carriers themselves—which inevitably learn your phone’s location by providing it with a signal, but which retain the resulting records of your whereabouts from one to five years—have also been caught selling this information to data brokers.
Thakur called the carriers’ geographic data collection particularly dangerous: “They collect and have tremendous amounts of location data which can be linked to a lot of private data about individuals.”
Politico‘s publication of a leaked draft of a 5-4 Supreme Court opinion that would reverse Roe v. Wade and allow states to impose sweeping abortion bans has only made the risks of location-data abuse more obvious.
“In the past week, many companies are increasingly aware that location data is extremely high risk, particularly with concerns that individuals seeking reproductive services or data revealing sexual orientation could be exposed,” wrote Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, in an email.
For example, Vice‘s Joseph Cox reported Tuesday that the location-data firm SafeGraph was selling location data about visits to Planned Parenthood facilities. Google banned that firm’s code from Play Store apps last June.
A federal privacy law, if Congress could ever pass one, might place sweeping limits on this sort of surreptitious surveillance. A smaller-bore bill could cut down on the more egregious practices; for example, The Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act, introduced last April by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would ban government agencies from evading search-warrant requirements with data-broker shopping sprees.
Court rulings may add other privacy limits—as the Supreme Court did in 2018 when it held that police need a warrant to obtain historical cell-site location data from wireless carriers.
But for now, the most effective regulation of app-based location tracking looks to have come from Apple and Google. Both iOS and Android now let users stop apps from getting their location in the background and limit any one app to getting only their approximate location.
That last option can be particularly helpful for apps that don’t require GPS-level accuracy but do need to know roughly where you are—in my case, the weather app I rely on to ping me about the chance of rain.
In his email, Polonetsky suggested Apple and Google’s restrictions alone had played a large role in herding Facebook’s background-location features to extinction.
Third-party research has yielded the same conclusion, with a 2020 study finding a 68% reduction in the amount of background location info collected by marketers after Apple added background-tracking controls to iOS 13 the year before.
Polonetsky urged other firms that have kept on collecting and retaining location data to read the room already: “Many companies that have access to user location should be taking a hard look at whether they need to collect that data and how they can minimize or delete location histories.”