Apple has been in hot water for the past week or so after it was discovered that iOS devices are tracking users as they move about, and storing location data. While having your iPhone or Android smartphone keep tabs on where you go raises privacy concerns for some, smartphones are by no means the only thing monitoring where you’ve been.
While Apple and Google are getting a lot of attention over what location tracking information they do, or do not log, there is little attention being paid to the fact that the wireless providers log and store the same information. Wireless providers may not be able to pinpoint your location down to a few meters like GPS can, but the wireless cell towers keep tabs on which tower your mobile phone is connected to as you travel about. So, wireless providers can at least connect the dots to figure out where you’ve been on a larger scale.
GPS devices use input from the user collective to provide more accurate information regarding traffic conditions and help guide customers to avoid problem areas and get to their destination faster. The information gathered may include things like exactly where you were, what direction you were headed, and how fast you were going. It was recently discovered that TomTom is selling GPS navigation data to the Dutch police for help in determining the best places to establish speed traps. TomTom issued a statement claiming that the data is anonymous, but that is just TomTom, and it doesn’t mean that more specific information couldn’t be collected.
ATM / Credit Cards
If you are concerned that ‘Big Brother’ might be able to track you, you’d better not use any plastic. When you get cash from an ATM, or make a purchase with your credit card, the location is logged along with the exact date and time of the transaction.
Customer Loyalty Programs
Customer loyalty programs like those at grocery stores and other retail chains are another method of tracking your location. The stores lure customers into participating with the promise of special bonuses and discounts, but the real purpose such programs is to monitor customer habits and behaviors. The retailer knows which store you shopped at and when, and they know exactly what you purchased.
ISPs and Web Sites
When your notebook or netbook–or even a tablet or smartphone-connect with an Internet provider, the ISP has to assign an IP address to your device. The ISP maintains a database of the IP address that was assigned, and the MAC address of the device that the IP address was assigned to. And, that information might be able to be used to determine whether you connect to a router in a Starbucks in Topeka, Kansas, or a router at a Holiday Inn Express in Rochester, New York.
You might be able to avoid such tracking by using public computers like those at libraries or coffee shops. But, if you really want to make sure you aren’t tracked, don’t log in to anything. If you log in to Google to check your Gmail, or you log in to Facebook to post a status update, those sites keep track of the IP address you connected from, and that IP address can be traced to figure out where you connected from.
Many toll road systems throughout the United States offer expedited lanes that use RFID tags to pay the tolls so you don’t have to stop and wait in line to toss coins in a basket. Every time your vehicle drives through a toll booth, the location is logged along with the exact date and time your vehicle passed through.
They’re everywhere. They’re posted at intersections, they’re hidden throughout stores, and they’re at pharmacy and fast-food drive-through windows. You pretty much can’t avoid getting caught on a surveillance camera somewhere. The data may not be as instantly accessible as a database of your exact location throughout the day, but your location at a given point in time might be betrayed by the presence of your beaming smile on a surveillance tape somewhere.
The data being captured by Apple may be more insidious because it is apparently stored in a way that is unencrypted and that can be viewed by other apps, or by anyone with access to your iOS device or the PC you sync it with. But, unless you plan to pitch a tent in the Canadian wilderness and live complete off the grid, you are being tracked whether you like it or not.