By Cathleen Cusachs

Do you know who has access to your phone’s location data history? The Markup investigated this question recently, identifying 47 companies that work in this space. They shed some light into the harvesting, selling, and trading industry ecosystem.

“There isn’t a lot of transparency and there is a really, really complex shadowy web of interactions between these companies that’s hard to untangle,” a cyber policy fellow at the Duke Tech Policy Lab told The Markup. 

One thing the investigation revealed was how the data is collected. Most often, it comes from apps on your phone that request access to your location services. Obvious examples are weather apps and navigation apps. Without telling you, they might sell that information to data analysis companies or aggregators. Businesses can then buy these companies’ insights and use them for advertising, investment strategies, etc.

The Markup found that companies trading data insights are reluctant to share what apps it came from, though most claimed it was from “transparent” processes. Once the data leaves the app and has entered the marketplace, it can be passed around without any notice to the user. “Everybody sells to everybody else,” a CEO of a location analytics firm told The Markup. 

The industry is massive. One company has 320 location data providers listed on its directory, the CEO told The Markup. This means your data can end up practically anywhere, including political campaigns, law enforcement agencies, retail and food businesses, etc. “There is virtually nothing in U.S. law preventing an American company from selling data on two million service members, let’s say, to some Russian company that’s just a front for the Russian government,” the Duke Tech Policy Lab fellow said.

The full investigation and its findings can be found on The Markup.

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