Are You Tracking Your Customers’ Locations on Their Mobile Phones?

Marketers Beware: Customers Don’t Want Their Locations to Be Tracked and Monitored

July 19, 2012

Do you know where you are? Everyone else might! Today’s smartphones are tracking devices that also happen to make phone calls. Many of the most popular application development toolkits are provided by the advertising networks. And the apps developed using these toolkits have location tracking turned on by default. Even apps that don’t require location services to function are probably tracking your location and sharing that information without your permission.


Many people now use their mobile phones as their primary means of digital interaction. There’s a huge amount of detailed personal information that can be gleaned by monitoring activity on our phones. One type of personal information that is routinely monitored, often without the users’ consent, is the location of the phone (and presumably of the person whose phone it is) at any and every point in time.

Mobile app developers and interactive marketers may not be aware that the apps they’re building and/or the advertising services they’re using routinely track and log the locations of consumers’ phones as they move about during the day.

Consumers are becoming aware of this location tracking issue. Tech-savvy and privacy-conscious users are being careful to turn off the location services on their phones and not to download and use apps that track your location. But isn’t privacy a basic right? Should location-monitoring be the default?

If you are in charge of your firm’s mobile app strategy and/or marketing strategy, you should think carefully about whether or not your customers want their whereabouts to be monitored. Don’t make them opt out of something they don’t want you to do be doing in the first place!

Find the Nearest Starbucks iPhone App


© 2012 Brandon and Erik Corp.

The original Find Starbucks app for the iPhone got terrible reviews from customers. This iPhone app called Find Nearest Starbucks is distributed by Brandon and Erik Corporation. These screenshots are from version 1.5, which was released on July 14, 2012. It is not a free app. It sells for $.99. Notice that you can turn tracking on and off very explicitly.


Mobile Phones Are Convenient, But Too Easy to Monitor

On July 13th, the New York Times published an article that caught my attention, titled: “That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker!” This useful exposé by Peter Maas and Megha Rajagoplan starts out:

“The device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone — guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let’s stop calling them phones. They are trackers.

Most doubts about the principal function of these devices were erased when it was recently disclosed that cellphone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data. That’s not even a complete count, because T-Mobile, one of the largest carriers, refused to reveal its numbers. It appears that millions of cellphone users have been swept up in government surveillance of their calls and where they made them from. Many police agencies don’t obtain search warrants when requesting location data from carriers.

Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.

We have all heard about the wonders of frictionless sharing, whereby social networks automatically let our friends know what we are reading or listening to, but what we hear less about is frictionless surveillance. Though we invite some tracking — think of our mapping requests as we try to find a restaurant in a strange part of town — much of it is done without our awareness.

‘Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers,’ writes Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado. ‘These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet.’”

~ Peter Maas and Megha Rajagoplan, The New York Times

Up until now, most consumers seem to be blissfully unaware that their every move, web search, phone call, texts and emails sent and received from their mobile phones, and all their contacts’ information is, in fact, being collected so that it can be analyzed and monitored. But articles like the one cited above from the New York Times are beginning to inform and educate consumers. The use of this information by law enforcement and government agencies appears to be more pervasive and abusive in the United States than it is in European countries, for example.


If You Are Suspected of Being Engaged in Criminal Activity (or Anywhere Near Criminal Activity)

Most people realize that law enforcement agencies are able to track peoples’ locations and listen in on their phone calls. We have all watched movies and TV shows in which the bad guys are investigated and thwarted through the marvels of GPS tracking and phone surveillance. So, most people believe that the ability of law enforcement to track mobile phone whereabouts and usage is a matter of public safety.

Yet, often our law enforcement personnel are tracking this information without a warrant and without due process. In the U.S., the ACLU has contacted almost 400 local government agencies (municipal and county police departments) and discovered that only 10 of them do not track cell phones. And many municipalities reported that they track cell phone usage without obtaining warrants.

What can law enforcement learn about you from your mobile phone location information? As the ACLU report on nationwide cell phone tracking stated...

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  • Ronni_author
    Ronni Marshak on September 12, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.

    Is this a new category of app? Stalkerware?

    As an avid fan of police procedural TV shows, I see the positive (the good guys can find you) and the negative (so can the bad guys). Marketers fall somewhere in the middle...

  • warsir
    Warren Sirota on October 28, 2012 at 12:21 p.m.
    To parahprase Pogo: "We have met Big Brother and he is us."  So long as everyday folks (like my older sister who did not know why she needed a computer at the turn of the century) become Facebook stalkers, etc., the societal "we" won't flinch at the authorities doing even worse in the name of security.
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