2020’s Location-Privacy Winter: The iOS Edition

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This is the latest in Street Fight’s “Pursuing Privacy” series – our editorial focus in January, including topics like GDPR, CCPA, and location data collection. See the rest of the series here and our full slate of monthly themes here.  

Privacy and data collection became a breakout topic of 2019 in media, advertising, and tech. As we roll into 2020, it’s only heating up. That has a lot to do with January’s official activation of the California Consumer Privacy Act, the Golden State’s counterpart to GDPR.

But CCPA isn’t the only factor that will impact privacy and data collection. There are less-discussed and potentially more significant variables like the death of browser cookies and other tech-centric measures. Especially for location tracking, private sector influences and accelerants loom.

Before exploring those, a few thoughts on CCPA. Its impact will mostly be getting companies on top of their data collection game. Actual enforcement is a different story. There will be cautionary tales and scapegoats, not to mention class-action lawsuit trolls, but CCPA itself is known to be fairly toothless.

As companies enact fear-based compliance, there will be lots of progress in data collection methods and transparency around things like privacy policies. And most companies will likely apply CCPA compliance across the board so that they don’t have to maintain two sets of policies and processes.

But beyond that, other agents of change could generate greater movement, at least when it comes to location data. We’re talking mostly about data collection restrictions at the mobile OS level. Just as Android was already doing, iOS 13 now brings greater transparency to the apps that use your location, via push notifications.

As shown in the screenshots I’ve been taking (below), notifications give users a nudge to remind them about who’s tracking them. More importantly, it offers a frictionless way to revise the settings from the same screen. This is already causing opt-out rates as high as 80 percent according to Location Sciences.

As background (excuse the pun), GPS permissions happen at the app level. Apps and ad tech players have enjoyed the ability (and less transparency) for background tracking for several years. For example, Uber uses it to refine its logistics (think: drop-off spots) based on post-ride movement.

But based on iOS13, aggregate location signals could diminish. It’s often a no-brainer choice to downgrade location to “only while using.” Of course, it depends: If location is central to the value-tradeoff (think: weather, mapping), tracking makes sense. But it’s a question of background tracking.

In fact, try to think of an app for which background tracking is core to the value trade-off. A panel discussion I recently moderated struggled to name one. The Uber example above arguably has some user benefits, but that’s more in the aggregate as Uber refines logistical systems and drop-off points.

So it’s these apps themselves that could suffer most from diminished location permissions. It will also impact location intelligence providers. There could be a ripple effect, as location intelligence providers work with apps like Uber to ingest background locations needed to support marketing efforts.

If you combine Apple’s change with CCPA, we could see a bit of a shakeout in the location intelligence sector. Survivors will weather the privacy winter with a combination of innovation (getting creative with data sources) and diversified sources (variety of location signals). Players like Foursquare have both.

There could also be consolidation resulting from the need to pool diminishing sources of data. A similar network effect (though less about diminishing data) drove Fourquare’s acquisition of Placed. Meanwhile, CCPA could create a more stable ad tech environment that boosts investor confidence in M&A activity.

Also entering the equation is growing demand for location intelligence. As we’ve examined, location intelligence is moving beyond marketing to a range of operational support and enterprise functions, including supply-chain logistics and scouting optimal locations for multi-location brands.

Connecting the dots, we could see greater demand (broader application of location data) and diminished supply (consolidation, shakeout, and barriers to entry). That creates a favorable position for those who survive the privacy winter. Using the Foursquare example again, it could grab market share.

This is all admittedly speculation from an industry analyst. But many of the factors align. In addition to impact from CCPA in ways expected and yet unforeseen, expect influence from factors that stretch beyond legislation.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at Localogy.com