Have you ever wondered why online advertisers always know where you are? Living in a world where our devices and apps talk to one another, data surveillance is rising, and it’s becoming harder to keep our whereabouts private.
Big tech companies are using your smartphone data to track where you are, when, and for how long. We give so much of our lives away for free. They arguably know us better than we know ourselves.
Governments are now looking to access your data, with Apple and Google installing an Exposure Notification API on our phones to support them in their ‘track and trace’ efforts.
In this article, we’ll discuss and reveal how organizations are tracking your location data and what you can do to protect your Internet privacy.
Why Are They Tracking You?
If you’re using a free online service, ask yourself, how do they make their money. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms are free to use, and monetize your activities every time you perform a search, visit a page, click on a link. There’s money in knowing who you are.
Turning Clicks into Cash
Google profits by allowing companies to personalize their ads using their search data. In 2019, they generated 160.74 billion U.S. dollars in advertising revenue alone. Their behavioral advertising model enables them to monetize your online habits through predictive analysis.
Let’s say you’re in Toronto looking for a “French restaurant near me” on Google Maps—there’s a good chance you like European-style dining.
Third-parties will then pay Google to advertise similar services and products based on the information you’ve given away for free.
Now you can’t eliminate data surveillance unless you want to destroy all your devices and never use the Internet again. You can, however, restrict third parties from tracking you by managing your location data.
Sharing Your Real-Time Location
If you agree to Google Maps tracking your location data, it will keep a log of everywhere you go in its “Timeline.” The app can see where you’ve been on a particular day, how you traveled there, the pictures you took, and much more.
Google argues that by collecting your location data, it improves their services—bookmarking restaurants or helping you find essential services, such as transport hubs, within walking distance of your pin.
Google Timeline: Privacy Issues
Allowing Google’s Timeline to log your location is convenient for many people, but it comes with significant Internet privacy risks. Some U.S. police forces and criminal investigators are now using Google as a dragnet to hunt for suspects, and they have, on occasion, snared innocent parties.
Google also admits using your location data to show places complying with ‘stay-at-home’ requests.
Manage Your Location History
If you have privacy issues with Google, you can manage or delete your location history by following these easy steps.
- Go to myactivity.google.com in your Google account.
- On the left-hand side menu, click “Activity Controls.”
- Now click “Web & App Activity” and “Location History” and toggle the blue button.
- From myactivity.google.com, you can also manually delete your location tracking up until the present day.
Alternatively, you can sign in to your account on Google Maps.
- Select the Menu icon in the top-left hand corner.
- Scroll the left-hand Menu and click on “Timeline.”
- Click on the Timeline tab and select “Manage Location History” in the horizontal column below.
- Toggle the blue button and turn off your location history tracking.
Apple and Google’s Contact-tracing Update
Even though you can manage and delete your location history, or not use Google, there are parallel developments in contact-tracing underway.
Apple and Google have recently installed a tracking system on our smartphones, enabling contact-tracing apps to identify your whereabouts, and, depending on where you live, instruct you to self-isolate if you’ve contacted someone with the virus.
Exposure Notification API
Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API is an underlying technology that enables contact-tracing apps to work across different devices. If you check your phone’s settings, you’ll find it pre-installed and ready for action.
For the API to work in conjunction with a contact-tracing app, you’ll need to have Bluetooth and location-enabled services turned on.
According to Google, you can turn off these features, but you cannot remove the API from your device.
Manage Your Privacy Settings
No one gave their consent to Apple or Google to introduce this API, which has led to public skepticism over data surveillance.
Norway was one of the first European countries to develop a contact-tracing app called “Smittestopp,” but it’s now suspended due to concerns about data protection and privacy.
With location tracking becoming more invasive, some people might feel they’ve no power over their security settings anymore. Fortunately, there are still a few things you can do to protect your device.
Keep Your Phone Secure
If you don’t want third parties tracking your phone via Bluetooth beacons you can:
- Turn off location sharing
- Turn off Bluetooth
- Download a VPN
By following these simple instructions, you’ll have greater privacy and freedom online, especially with a VPN.
Download a VPN
While a virtual private network (VPN) cannot prevent or block the Exposure Notification API, it supports end-to-end encryption between your device and server, keeping you anonymous online.
By downloading a VPN, you can hide your IP address and use a virtual IP from another location. Let’s say you’re searching online in New York today. With VPN software, you can change your IP address to Sydney and browse as if you live in Australia.
Hiding your IP will give you greater anonymity online, and make it harder for third parties to track you.
Why Your IP Address Identifies You
Websites and apps use IP addresses to identify people online, whether you’re logging on at home or using public Wi-Fi. Even if you go incognito on Google, that won’t stop them from tracking you.
If you believe your data belongs to you, hiding your IP is essential, so downloading a VPN can help preserve your online security in a fast changing world.
Protect Your Internet Privacy
Living in a data surveillance age, where our phones and laptops dominate almost every aspect of our lives, there will inevitably be privacy issues. No one is going to uninvent the Internet. Most of us probably can’t imagine life without it.
Ultimately, it’s your choice whether you trust Google to use your data responsibly, or to limit the information it has on you. With a global health emergency accelerating government demands for our location data, we have choices to make as citizens.
Do you consent to a tracking system on your device, or will top-down changes continue to be made without your permission?
Without privacy, there is no freedom, and as technology evolves, we need to safeguard our privileges. By doing so, we can continue to live freely, navigate without fear, and decide for ourselves what data we give away.
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