Information Collection, Location Tracking & User Awareness

by Digital Rights LAC on August 28, 2023

Privacidad Latam

As companies around the globe are tracking data online, it’s important for Latin American users to understand the steps they can take to protect their own privacy.

Ellen Marie Nadeau, Derechos Digitales*

The past few weeks, articles regarding mobile tracking have been circulating the Internet. New technology connects the tracking of users’ mobile app behavior with their web behavior, which impacts user privacy as this wealth of collected personal information is aggregated to produce one all-too-comprehensive view of phone and Internet use.

While this particular technology has received a great deal of attention, it is all-too-common for our mobile phones to collect mass amounts of our data. Other apps don’t receive as much publicity as Google, so users generally aren’t as familiar with what information is being collected and by whom. This was illustrated in a 2013 study by Carnegie Mellon, which mapped user expectations with privacy and security risks of mobile applications. Out of the most popular 100 Android apps, 56 collect device ID, contact lists and/or location. One of the most shocking was Brightest Flashlight – 95% of study participants were surprised that this app collected such significant amounts of data. The lack of awareness by users shows that there needs to be a significant shift in understanding – especially since the ability to monitor and turn off the tracking settings lies completely in users’ hands.

iPhone makes it relatively simple to adjust setting. To learn which apps on an iPhone are tracking location, there’s a simple process:
1. Open phone’s “Settings”
2. Go to “General”
3. Choose “Background App Refresh”

On this page, one can monitor which apps are tracking user location by looking for a blue arrow next to the application name. Turning off an iPhone’s location services will block active tracking. In addition to this, it’s important to disable passive tracking in order to prohibit apps from determining location through connections with Wi-Fi networks.

On any type of phone, privacy policies also appear when one chooses to download a new mobile app. In order to fully understand what information one is sharing, it’s imperative to pay close attention to these settings. The US Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on these privacy policies to ensure that they are extremely transparent for users to make well-informed decisions. This is exemplified by the charges FTC brought against “Brightest Flashlight Free” for failing to disclose the extent of tracking and information sharing to consumers; the app developer eventually settled the charges in December 2013. As the FTC takes measures to make certain that privacy policies tell the whole truth, it is up to users to utilize this information.

With this new responsibility comes a great need for awareness and training for users around the globe with respect to their privacy. Users must know what rights they are afforded, and how to determine the extent to which certain apps and websites are collecting their information. While there are a plethora of awareness campaigns, most don’t focus on these issues. Latin American and Caribbean national awareness campaigns are a prime example of this. In a June 2014 report, the Organization of American States and Symantec explain current awareness campaigns throughout the region. While Belize hosts an annual ICT Road Show to discuss cybersecurity and e-government, among other topics, user privacy is not included. The Dominican Republic’s Health Internet campaign aims to keep kids safe and decrease online sexual exploitation, but similarly lacks general user privacy rights education. A greater focus on these issues would help users to utilize the resources available to them, such as privacy policies and location disabling settings, to take greater control of their privacy.

There are users who revel in apps that alert them to nearby sales, offer clothing suggestions made just for them, and provide other personalized marketing. If these users choose to allow apps to track their location and activities, that is their prerogative. However, this should most certainly be an active choice. By better educating the general public with regards to privacy rights, they will have the knowledge and interest to utilize existing tools and take greater control of their privacy.

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Ellen was Google Policy Fellow at Derechos Digitales.