Having big companies track our locations is awesome. It improves our lives in ways big and small with services that are only possible because tech companies know where we are. The benefits of location tracking outweigh the risks.
Location tracking improves the world in two ways: it allows companies to provide services specifically to you; and it lets them combine your movements with information from other people and deliver services that benefit everyone.
How location tracking benefits you individually
Maps & Uber/Lyft Of course, Google Maps and many other apps use your location – that’s the point. If you turn off all location tracking on your phone, Google Maps won’t work, and that’s a price too high for most people. Uber & Lyft must be able to find you and track you to your destination. You rely on many apps that must know your location in order to work.
Emergencies GPS tracking is the most reliable way for emergency responders to find you. When you dial 911, iOS and Android automatically share a device’s location with emergency services. They’re working on making the location data precise enough to pinpoint a specific location in a building.
Lost phone You can track your lost phone with GPS and get real-time updates of its current location.
Child safety You can keep tabs on a child or elderly relative if you are worried about them getting lost.
Locating friends Google Maps can share your location during a trip. Apple’s Find My Friends app lets you share your location with friends. Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and other social networking apps have similar features to help you locate friends and meet up.
Business management When a business issues phones to its employees, it can track the phones to see where the employee spends time while on the job. Taxi and delivery companies can monitor whether an employee drives faster than the speed limit.
Credit cards Financial companies use location data to detect fraud and make sure you are present when your credit card is used.
Games There are games like Pokemon Go that are expressly built on your movements from place to place. Other games are designed to require proximity to other players.
Students In addition to tracking class attendance, campus administrators believe they can identify students in trouble. The Washington Post got these anecdotes from a data scientist touting a location tracking app for colleges:
“A student avoiding the cafeteria might suffer from food insecurity or an eating disorder; a student skipping class might be grievously depressed. The data isn’t conclusive, Benz said, but it can “shine a light on where people can investigate, so students don’t slip through the cracks.” At a Silicon Valley summit in April, Benz outlined a recent real-life case: that of Student ID 106033, a depressed and “extremely isolated” student he called Sasha whom the system had flagged as “highly at-risk” because she only left her dorm to eat.”
Reminders and home assistant tasks Amazon Echo and Google Assistant can perform location-based tasks – reminders to buy yogurt when you pull into the grocery store parking lot, or a routine to shut off the lights and turn down the thermostat when you leave the house.
Targeted ads Let me describe this, then you can decide if it’s a benefit or a curse.
Advertisers increasingly display ads that are relevant to your current location. At the moment it’s easy things – ads for restaurants within walking distance when you do a search for lunch, for example. Advertisers will be creative, and soon your phone might pop up a coupon for an extra discount as you walk by a store. You’ll see ads in your Facebook feed for a medication when you’re sitting in a doctor’s office, or an advertisement for a new car after you walk through a dealership. Eventually billboards might display ads targeted at you as walk or drive by them.
Your first instinct is, Oooh! Creepy! But now pause for a second.
One of the reasons that you resent ads today is that they’re usually stupid. You’ll see ads for products that obviously don’t suit you, or you’ll see an ad for the same product over and over and over and don’t they know you already bought it? Makes you want to scream.
Nothing is going to stop ads. Our world is built on the revenue from ads and the business they generate.
So wouldn’t you rather that the ads got smarter? If you let them track you, the odds improve that the ads will actually be relevant.
It won’t happen right away. Ads will still be stupid for a long time because AI is hard and a lot of businesses are hateful. But if they’re going to get the data anyway – and they are – we might as well fantasize that it will make the ad assault a bit better.
How location tracking benefits everyone
Traffic Google Maps and Waze watch the movements of all the phones on the road. That’s how you learn about traffic jams and alternate routes.
Transportation studies and city planning Governments and planners use traffic data for more than just the morning commute. For example, the City Council of Portland, Ore., unanimously approved a deal to study traffic and transit by monitoring millions of cellphones.
Epidemics and natural disasters China monitors its citizens’ movement at a level that we would find unacceptable in the west. But that allowed it to move aggressively against Covid-19 by notifying and quarantining anyone who had, say, ridden a subway car with an infected person.
Unicef, for example, has announced a plan to use aggregated mobile location data to study epidemics, natural disasters, and demographics.
As with much new technology, the loss of privacy is a trade-off. It’s impossible to stop location tracking. The benefits are real. Let go of your fears and embrace the good things that come from letting everyone know where you are all the time.
For now, ignore an uncomfortable reality, which is that location tracking can also destroy lives and unleash hellish nightmares. We’ll wrap this up with a look at the dark side in the next article.