New GDPR-style opt-out is needed for location data collection

By Ed Parkes, Emerging Field


 A new generation of tools are making us aware of how we are tracked online. Apple, for example, has recently incorporated a Privacy Report feature in its update of Safari in iOS 14. 


Tracking is not limited to which websites we visit however – our movements are tracked offline as well, as location data is collected using our phone’s Wi-Fi and GPS. Unlike online tracking, there are not clear and concise prompts for users that explain when location data is being collected and by who as we move through the physical world.



At Emerging Field and Twigged we have developed a new public facing resource, called Clear Your Tracks to help

people understand how location data is collected by their devices and what they can do to reduce data collection.


It is difficult to make the case that people are able to give their informed consent to tracking when the method and

purpose of it is not made clear to them. When it comes to mobile software and location tracking, a study has shown

that up to 90 percent of smartphone apps collect information, including location data, that is sold on to advertisers

using a mechanism known as third party trackers.


Unlike location data collection in order for the software to work, for instance in mapping, route planning and ride

hailing apps, third party trackers collect data specifically for the purpose of selling it on. This means that advertisers

can effectively link online and offline behaviour information to build more detailed customer profiles for individual




A New York Times investigation found that there is a market worth $21 billion per year in the US alone in collecting

and trading location data about smartphone users, often without their knowledge. Research by the Royal Society

also suggests it takes just four points in time and space to identify 95 percent of individuals.


Location data is also collected in a number of different ways, not only via GPS. For example, you can be tracked between Wi-Fi hotspots you use. For instance, if you leave your Wi-Fi on when you’re on the London Underground, even if you’re not connected to the Wi-Fi hotspots provided by TfL, they can track you based on which hotspots you move through.



This information is used to analyse how people are using the city’s transport network and at an aggregate level to determine advertising. TfL’s tracking of our movement is relatively benign – they are open about collecting the data and how they are using it and they have privacy protections in place.


However, there is no clear opt-out for this kind of tracking, and almost no awareness that the data is being collected in the first place. The only way to opt-out is to turn your Wi-Fi off.


Clear Your Tracks is an online tool designed to tell the story of how and why location information is collected about users. It shows in an approachable way how data is collected and provides users with clear instructions on how to opt-out.



But even when this information is clearly provided, there seems to be a disproportionate burden on the user for finding the controls, which vary depending on the make and model of the device. And there is little incentive for the makers of mobile hardware and software to make this journey easier.


As many nations look to digital solutions for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic through contact tracing apps, winning the public’s trust when it comes to data collection is more important than ever. The Benchmark Initiative, which funded the development of Clear Your Tracks, aims to raise awareness about and start a conversation around the ethics of the collection and use of location data.


But with the future of digital regulation in the UK unclear as it begins to move away from the EU regulatory environment that created GDPR, it may fall on individual users and companies to spread awareness about data collection. In the absence of clear regulatory incentives for transparency in the collection and use of location data, companies that make it easier for their customers to see how their data is being used, and provide clear opt-outs, will find it easier to win the trust of their users.

Ed Parkes

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