Why Are These 5 Apps Tracking Your Location?

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Handy mit PositionszeigernLast week, Samsung roiled privacy advocates when a promotional app, which the company used to distribute Jay-Z’s newest album, was found to be collecting location data from users without an explicit local feature. The debate comes amid a flurry of reports of questionable data practices, ranging from covert government spying programs to new wireless carrier products that openly peddle users’ anonymized location data.

Data privacy has become a particularly prickly issue in the mobile marketing space. As brands shift more and more of their marketing budgets to mobile initiatives, many want to emulate the behavioral targeting of a data-rich desktop environment on the cookie-less mobile medium. That means demand for information like a user’s location is increasing.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction Institute studied the data usage of the top 100 apps in the Google Play store, and found that the majority of users were in the dark about the information developers were collecting. Of the top 100 Android apps, the study found that 56% accessed a user’s location. More than half of users surveyed, however, were unaware that their location data from these apps could potentially be used for marketing.

The divide between what marketers can do with personal data and what consumers think is being done with their data is only increasing.  A separate study published in the journal Nature recently found that location data, exactly the kind of which publishers are passing on, can easily be used to identify individuals. Researchers were able to identify 95% of the individuals in the study using four points of spatial-temporal data.

From Flashlights to Dictionaries, more apps than ever are accessing a user’s location. Here are five applications which collect location that might surprise you.

1) Jay-Z’s Magna Carta App
The application was an experiment from its inception. Samsung purchased 1 million copies of the album to give owners of its Galaxy S III, S 4, and Note II phones a jump on the new album’s release. Users could download the application in advance, and use it to listen to the album five days prior to its release.

As it turns out, the app didn’t just play music. It collected a swath of user data, ranging from users’ whereabouts to their device IDs. The Washington Post called it “a data collection exercise disguised as a smartphone app capable of delivering a bundle of mediocre rap songs to your mobile device.” It’s unclear whether Jay-Z or Samsung were even storing the user data, but given the uproar, neither is likely to say much about their motives.

2) Angry Birds
This massively popular game series doesn’t have local feature in play today, yet its Android app can access a user’s network location. That data comes from cellular and wifi triangulation methods, and serves up a slightly less accurate signal than GPS.

Its parent company Rovio briefly flirted with a location-based gaming feature called Magic in the spring of 2011. Companies like Barnes and Noble used the feature, which allowed users to unlock special content when they arrived at certain locations, to build native-like marketing campaigns, giving users new levels and other oddities when they played at store locations.

3) Dictionary.com
The iPhone application uses location for a tucked away feature called Nearby words, which shows the words that users are looking up in their vicinity. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that these very minor potential use-case of the feature did little to quell the concerns of users. With only 15% of users aware of the feature, most expected that location was used to target ads and expressed concern about the way in which the data was used.

The app’s privacy policy reserves the right for “advertisers and advertising networks [to] use tracking technologies to collect… general geographic location and use that information to display targeted ads to users.” It does not stipulate the length of time that data can stay on its servers, or the frequency with which the app collects user data.

4) Shazam
Similar to Dictionary.com, the Shazam app includes a small location-based feature in its mobile app, which allows users to search for other users nearby.  It’s unclear to what extent location plays in the Shazam’s advertising strategy, but the company reserves the right to deliver “contextual advertising,” which delivers ads based on a user’s current location.

5) Brightest Flashlight
Maybe the most direct offender, the android app, which allows users to toggle their camera’s flash on and half, actively tracks a user’s location. In the Carnegie Mellon study, 95% of users surveyed said they were unaware that the application accessed their location.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

Have you noticed other mobile apps collecting location data that isn’t particularly relevant their user function? Tell us about them in the comments!