They Know Where You Are Even When You Don’t

By: Jean-Pierre Zreik

As the digital age progresses, technology continues to evolve and expand, making us more reliant upon it. As we rely more on our devices, we input a greater amount of personal and sensitive information onto them, opening up ways for our privacy to be invaded.[1] One way privacy may be invaded is through location tracking on smartphones via geolocation data.[2] Geolocation is defined as the process or technique of identifying the geographical location of a person or device by means of digital information processed via the internet.[3] Nearly all devices and apps use geolocation data in location tracking,[4] but the United States has yet to enact legislation addressing the privacy implications of collecting this data.[5]

Without any guidance from federal legislation, companies had been getting away with deceptive privacy policies.[6] The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), under Section 5 of the FTC act, has taken a larger role in protecting consumer privacy.[7] The FTC has been regulating companies collecting or using geolocation data, specifically those with inadequate disclosure of that usage.[8] This has been a good start in protecting consumers privacy, however issues continue to arise.

In 2014, Snapchat settled an FTC action based upon false and misleading information in their privacy policy.[9] While Snapchat claimed location information was not asked for, tracked, or accessed, the app was found to be transmitting geolocation data on android devices.[10] The FTC showed that geolocation data is personal enough that it is subject to fair practice principles of proper notice and consent.[11] While Snapchat quickly fixed their privacy policy following their settlement, it seems that they once again are challenging the notions of privacy with their new feature “Snap Maps.” They do have it as an optional feature, which adheres to the FTCs ruling in the 2014 settlement, but it still seems to invite privacy problems. Once enabled, it constantly tracks your location each time the app is opened,[12] allowing anyone you are friends with on the app, can see your location down to the exact address.[13] You may have to opt in to this feature, but as aforementioned, geolocation data is seen by the FTC as extremely personal information, and this seems to be asking for trouble.[14]

Snapchat isn’t the only app that poses privacy risks or problems using geolocation data, one among them is Pokemon Go.[15] When playing Pokemon Go, most users leave the app open at all times, allowing Niantic, the creator of the app, to track all your movements, at all times.[16] Further, the privacy policy Niantic makes users agree to before playing allows them to share aggregated and non personal information with third parties.[17] In essence, Niantic can share where you go, what you do, and more, to just about anyone. In the wrong hands, say via a hack of Niantic, this is a huge privacy risk users take while playing Pokemon Go.

To help fix these privacy risks, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) was introduced in Congress and the Senate in 2011 but gained no traction.[18] Since then it has been reintroduced 3 more times, most recently this past winter of 2017.[19] It not only requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing geolocation data but it requires service providers and companies to consent before sharing geolocation data with third parties.[20] The GPS act would finally put into writing regulations and establish a process to obtain geolocation data and a process to use it in monitoring or tracking individuals.[21] It would be an excellent step in protecting consumer privacy and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigation,[22] with the hopes that this time it’s voted through.[23]


[1]Julie Myhre, Technology is Invading Our Privacy, DMN (Aug. 20, 2013), http://www.dmnews.com/marketing-automation/technology-is-invading-our-privacy/article/307471/.

[2] Daniel Ionescu, Geolocation 101: How it Works, the Apps, and Your Privacy, PCWorld (Mar. 29, 2010, 7:45 PM), http://www.pcworld.com/article/192803/geolo.html.

[3] English Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/geolocation.

[4] Myhre, supra note 1. 

[5] Devika Kornbacher, Scott Breedlove, Janice Ta, and Aislinn Affinito, In Light of Recent FTC Actions, Review Your Privacy Policy, L.J. Newsl., (Jan. 2017), http://www.lawjournalnewsletters.com/sites/lawjournalnewsletters/2017/01/01/in-light-of-recent-ftc-actions-review-your-privacy-policy/?slreturn=20170914232441.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Snapchat Settles FTC Charges That Promises of Disappearing Messages Were False, Federal Trade Commission (May 8, 2014), https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2014/05/snapchat-settles-ftc-charges-promises-disappearing-messages-were.

[10] Id. 

[11] Id.

[12] J.J. Citron and Ellie Citron, Even Teenagers Are Creeped Out By Snapchat’s New Map Feature, Slate (July 17, 2017, 10:03 AM), http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/07/17/even_teenagers_are_creeped_out_by_snapchat_s_new_map_feature.html.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Tiffany Li, Pokemon Go and The Law: Privacy, Intellectual Property, and Other Legal Concerns, Freedom to Tinker (July 19, 2016), https://freedom-to-tinker.com/2016/07/19/pokemon-go-and-the-law-privacy-intellectual-property-and-other-legal-concerns/.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Rahul Kapoor and Christopher Archer, Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act Introduced in US Congress, Nat’l L. Rev. (Feb. 23, 2017), https://www.natlawreview.com/article/geolocation-privacy-and-surveillance-act-introduced-us-congress.

[19] GPS World Staff, Bill Seeks To Crack Down On Warrantless Government Tracking, GPS World (Mar. 16, 2017), http://gpsworld.com/bill-seeks-to-crack-down-on-warrantless-government-tracking/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] GPS Act of 2017, H.R.1062, 115th Cong. (2017), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1062/text.

[23] Wyden, Chaffetz, Conyers Bill to Crack Down on Warrantless Tracking by the Government, Use of Cell-Site Technology, Wyden.senate.gov (Feb. 15, 2017), https://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-chaffetz-conyers-bill-to-crack-down-on-warrantless-tracking-by-the-government-use-of-cell-site-technology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *