Companies that you likely have never heard of are hawking access to the location history on your mobile phone. An estimated $12 billion market, the location data industry has many players: collectors, aggregators, marketplaces, and location intelligence firms, all of which boast about the scale and precision of the data that they’ve amassed.
Location firm Near describes itself as “The World’s Largest Dataset of People’s Behavior in the Real-World,” with data representing “1.6B people across 44 countries.” Mobilewalla boasts “40+ Countries, 1.9B+ Devices, 50B Mobile Signals Daily, 5+ Years of Data.” X-Mode’s website claims its data covers “25%+ of the Adult U.S. population monthly.”
In an effort to shed light on this little-monitored industry, The Markup has identified 47 companies that harvest, sell, or trade in mobile phone location data. While hardly comprehensive, the list begins to paint a picture of the interconnected players that do everything from providing code to app developers to monetize user data to offering analytics from “1.9 billion devices” and access to datasets on hundreds of millions of people. Six companies claimed more than a billion devices in their data, and at least four claimed their data was the “most accurate” in the industry.
“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,” Justin Sherman, a cyber policy fellow at the Duke Tech Policy Lab, said. “They operate on the fact that the general public and people in Washington and other regulatory centers aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing.”
Occasionally, stories illuminate just how invasive this industry can be. In 2020, Motherboard reported that X-Mode, a company that collects location data through apps, was collecting data from Muslim prayer apps and selling it to military contractors. The Wall Street Journal also reported in 2020 that Venntel, a location data provider, was selling location data to federal agencies for immigration enforcement.
A Catholic news outlet also used location data from a data vendor to out a priest who had frequented gay bars, though it’s still unknown what company sold that information.
Many firms promise that privacy is at the center of their businesses and that they’re careful to never sell information that can be traced back to a person. But researchers studying anonymized location data have shown just how misleading that claim can be.
The truth is, it’s hard to know all the ways in which your movements are being tracked and traded. Companies often reveal little about what apps serve as the sources of data they collect, what exactly that data consists of, and how far it travels. To piece together a picture of the ecosystem, The Markup reviewed the websites and marketing language of each of the 47 companies we identified as operating in the location data industry, as well as any information they revealed about how the data got to them. (See our methodology here.)
How the data leaves your phone
Most times, the location data pipeline starts off in your hands, when an app sends a notification asking for permission to access your location data.
Apps have all kinds of reasons for using your location. Map apps need to know where you are in order to give you directions to where you’re going. A weather, waves, or wind app checks your location to give you relevant meteorological information. A video streaming app checks where you are to ensure you’re in a country where it’s licensed to stream certain shows.
But unbeknownst to most users, some of those apps sell or share location data about their users with companies that analyze the data and sell their insights, like Advan Research. Other companies, like Adsquare, buy or obtain location data from apps for the purpose of aggregating it with other data sources. Companies like real estate firms, hedge funds and retail businesses might then turn and use the data for their own advertising, analytics, investment strategy, or marketing purposes.
Serge Egelman, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and CTO of AppCensus, who has researched sensitive data permissions on mobile apps, said it’s hard to tell which apps on your phone simply use the data for their own functional purposes and which ones release your data into the economic ether.
“When the app asks for location, in the moment, because maybe you click the button to find stuff near you and you get a permission dialog, you might reasonably infer that ‘Oh, that’s to service that request to provide that functionality,’ but there’s no guarantee of that,” Egelman said. “And there’s certainly usually never a disclosure that says that the data is going to be limited to that purpose.”
Companies that trade in this data are reluctant to share which apps they get data from.
The Markup asked spokespeople from all the companies on our list where they get the location data they obtain.
Companies like Adsquare and Cuebiq told The Markup that they don’t publicly disclose what apps they get location data from to keep a competitive advantage but maintained that their process of obtaining location data was transparent and with clear consent from app users.
“It is all extremely transparent,” said Bill Daddi, a spokesperson for Cuebiq.
He added that consumers must know what the apps are doing with their data because so few consent to share it. “The opt-in rates clearly confirm that the users are fully aware of what is happening because the opt-in rates can be as low as less than 20%, depending on the app,” Daddi said in an email.
Yiannis Tsiounis, the CEO of the location analytics firm Advan Research, said his company buys from location data aggregators, who collect the data from thousands of apps—but would not say which ones. Tsiounis said the apps he works with do explicitly say that they share location data with third parties somewhere in the privacy policies, though he acknowledged that most people don’t read privacy policies.
Only one company spokesperson, Foursquare’s Ashley Dawkins, actually named any specific apps—Foursquare’s own products, like Swarm, CityGuide, and Rewards—as sources for its location data trove.
But Foursquare also produces a free software development kit (SDK)—a set of prebuilt tools developers can use in their own apps—that can potentially track location through any app that uses it. Foursquare’s Pilgrim SDK is used in apps like GasBuddy, a service that compares prices at nearby gas stations, Flipp, a shopping app for coupons, and Checkout 51, another location-based discount app.
GasBuddy, Flipp, and Checkout 51 didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A search on Mighty Signal, a site that analyzes and tracks SDKs in apps, found Foursquare’s Pilgrim SDK in 26 Android apps.
While not every app with Foursquare’s SDK sends location data back to the company, the privacy policies for Flipp, Checkout 51, and GasBuddy all disclose that they share location data with the company.
Foursquare’s method of obtaining location data through an embedded SDK is a common practice. Of the 47 companies that The Markup identified, 12 of them advertised SDKs to app developers that could send them location data in exchange for money or services.
Placer.ai says in its marketing that it does foot traffic analysis and that its SDK is installed in more than 500 apps and has insights on more than 20 million devices.
“We partner with mobile apps providing location services and receive anonymized aggregated data. Very critically, all data is anonymized and stripped of personal identifiers before it reaches us,” Ethan Chernofsky, Placer.ai’s vice president of marketing, said in an email.
Into the location data marketplace
Once a person’s location data has been collected from an app and it has entered the location data marketplace, it can be sold over and over again, from the data providers to an aggregator that resells data from multiple sources. It could end up in the hands of a “location intelligence” firm that uses the raw data to analyze foot traffic for retail shopping areas and the demographics associated with its visitors. Or with a hedge fund that wants insights on how many people are going to a certain store.
“There are the data aggregators that collect the data from multiple applications and sell in bulk. And then there are analytics companies which buy data either from aggregators or from applications and perform the analytics,” said Tsiounis of Advan Research. “And everybody sells to everybody else.”
Some data marketplaces are part of well-known companies, like Amazon’s AWS Data Exchange, or Oracle’s Data Marketplace, which sell all types of data, not just location data. Oracle boasts its listing as the “world’s largest third-party data marketplace” for targeted advertising, while Amazon claims to “make it easy to find, subscribe to, and use third-party data in the cloud.” Both marketplaces feature listings for several of the location data companies that we examined.
Amazon spokesperson Claude Shy said that data providers have to explain how they gain consent for data and how they monitor people using the data they purchase.
“Only qualified data providers will have access to the AWS Data Exchange. Potential data providers are put through a rigorous application process,” Shy said.
Oracle declined to comment.
Other companies, like Narrative, say they are simply connecting data buyers and sellers by providing a platform. Narrative’s website, for instance, lists location data providers like SafeGraph and Complementics among its 17 providers with more than two billion mobile advertising IDs to buy from.
But Narrative CEO Nick Jordan said the company doesn’t even look at the data itself.
“There’s a number of companies that are using our platform to acquire and/or monetize geolocation data, but we actually don’t have any rights to the data,” he said. “We’re not buying it, we’re not selling it.”
To give a sense of how massive the industry is, Amass Insights has 320 location data providers listed on its directory, Jordan Hauer, the company’s CEO, said. While the company doesn’t directly collect or sell any of the data, hedge funds will pay it to guide them through the myriad of location data companies, he said.
“The most inefficient part of the whole process is actually not delivering the data,” Hauer said. “It’s actually finding what you’re looking for and making sure that it’s compliant, making sure that it has value and that it is exactly what the provider says it is.”
Oh, the places your data will Go
There are a whole slew of potential buyers for location data: investors looking for intel on market trends or what their competitors are up to, political campaigns, stores keeping tabs on customers, and law enforcement agencies, among others.
Data from location intelligence firm Thasos Group has been used to measure the number of workers pulling extra shifts at Tesla plants. Political campaigns on both sides of the aisle have also used location data from people who were at rallies for targeted advertising.
Fast food restaurants and other businesses have been known to buy location data for advertising purposes down to a person’s steps. For example, in 2018, Burger King ran a promotion in which, if a customer’s phone was within 600 feet of a McDonalds, the Burger King app would let the user buy a Whopper for one cent.
The Wall Street Journal and Motherboard have also written extensively about how federal agencies including the Internal Revenue Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. military bought location data from companies tracking phones.
Of the location data firms The Markup examined, the offerings are diverse.
Advan Research, for instance, uses historical location data to tell its customers, largely retail businesses or their private equity firm owners, where their visitors came from, and makes guesses about their income, race, and interests based on where they’ve been.
“For example, we know that the average income in this neighborhood by census data is $50,000. But then there are two devices—one went to Dollar General, McDonald’s, and Walmart, and the other went to a BMW dealer and Tiffany’s … so they probably make more money,” Advan Research’s Tsiounis said.
Others combine the location data they obtain with other pieces of data gathered from your online activities. Complementics, which boasts data on “more than a billion mobile device IDs,” offers location data in tandem with cross-device data for mobile ad targeting.
The prices can be steep.
Outlogic (formerly known as X-Mode) offers a license for a location dataset titled “Cyber Security Location data” on Datarade for $240,000 per year. The listing says “Outlogic’s accurate and granular location data is collected directly from a mobile device’s GPS.”
At the moment, there are few if any rules limiting who can buy your data.
Sherman, of the Duke Tech Policy Lab, published a report in August finding that data brokers were advertising location information on people based on their political beliefs, as well as data on U.S. government employees and military personnel.
“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,” Sherman said.
Existing privacy laws in the U.S., like California’s Consumer Privacy Act, do not limit who can purchase data, though California residents can request that their data not be “sold”—which can be a tricky definition. Instead, the law focuses on allowing people to opt out of sharing their location in the first place.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation has stricter requirements for notifying users when their data is being processed or transferred.
But Ashkan Soltani, a privacy expert and former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, said it’s unrealistic to expect customers to hunt down companies and insist they delete their personal data.
“We know in practice that consumers don’t take action,” he said. “It’s incredibly taxing to opt out of hundreds of data brokers you’ve never even heard of.”
Companies like Apple and Google, who control access to the app stores, are in the best position to control the location data market, AppCensus’s Egelman said.
“The real danger is the app gets booted from the Google Play store or the iOS app store,” he said.” As a result, your company loses money.”
Google and Apple both recently banned app developers from using location reporting SDKs from several data companies.
Researchers found, however, that the companies’ SDKs were still making their way into Google’s app store.
Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“The Google Play team is always working to strengthen privacy protections through both product and policy improvements. When we find apps or SDK providers that violate our policies, we take action,” Google spokesperson Scott Westover said in an email.
Digital privacy has been a key policy issue for U.S. senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, who told The Markup that the big app stores needed to do more.
“This is the right move by Google, but they and Apple need to do more than play whack-a-mole with apps that sell Americans’ location information. These companies need a real plan to protect users’ privacy and safety from these malicious apps,” Wyden said in an email.
This article by Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng was originally published on The Markup and was republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.