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Location tracking poses serious privacy concerns. But is it key to ending the pandemic?

   

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Welcome PrivacyArmor members! Beginning in 2021, PrivacyArmor will be known as Allstate Identity Protection. In the meantime, we’ll continue to provide you with tools and education designed to help protect your identity and privacy. Stay tuned for more details. 

 

Privacy watchdogs have long been concerned about location tracking — and with good reason. This technology can be helpful on a road trip or anytime we’re navigating somewhere new. But it also means that our GPS and Bluetooth enabled smartphones know a lot about the places we go and the people we spend time with.

Sadly, some apps collect and profit from this type of data without gaining clear consent from users. In one recent high-profile example, the State of Arizona sued Google for allegedly recording users’ whereabouts even after location-tracking was turned off, a practice that violates the state's consumer protection laws. 

In the midst of the pandemic, though, some companies and countries want to use location-tracking technology to slow the spread of COVID-19. But before you share personal information with any outside party, it’s important to consider how that data will be used and stored — both now and in the future. 

With that in mind, today’s article takes a closer look at the practice of location tracking and how the technology can be used to help trace coronavirus transmissions. Plus, if you’re a member, you can learn which key features can help protect you if your location data should ever wind up in the wrong hands. 

What is location tracking? 

The location of your phone can be tracked in a number of ways. Modern smartphones use radio waves to transmit time-stamped location data to different GPS satellites and cell towers. Devices also share location details with nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and Bluetooth beacons. Regardless of your phone’s make, model, or operating system, all of this can happen behind the scenes, without your explicit knowledge or consent. 

From there, software and app developers can access your information — and it’s no surprise that they’re eager to do so. Location details improve user experience, helping a product deliver more relevant content. But that convenience comes with consequences for the consumer, like an uptick in targeted ads, an expanded digital footprint, and an increased risk of data breaches.

If all of this feels troubling, you can exercise some control by visiting your phone’s settings to opt out of location tracking and disabling geo-tracking permissions for certain apps. Unfortunately, though, this won’t guarantee that your information stays private. If you’ve allowed location tracking for even a few select applications, those companies may share your location data with third parties, such as advertisers or other apps. What’s more, tech companies have been known to collect user data even when permissions are turned off. And once your information has been vacuumed up, it’s fairly impossible to control how it will be used and stored. 

That’s just one good reason to use an identity protection service like PrivacyArmor Plus. Here are three key tools our members can use manage their data: 

  • Click the ‘Dark Web Monitoring’ tab and add important information, like credit card numbers, to receive customizable alerts if your data falls into the wrong hands.
  • Log in to the portal and click the ‘Digital Footprint’ tab to see your digital footprint and learn if you’ve been part of a data breach. 
  • If your data has already been compromised, our experts can help resolve identity fraud or theft issues on your behalf. 

How is location tracking being used to fight COVID-19? 

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of smartphone surveillance. But when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, location-tracking technology could be extremely helpful. For example, mobile-location data can help with contact tracing, allowing public health officials to pinpoint who else may have been exposed with each new diagnosis. In aggregate, geo-tracking datasets may also be used to predict the path of the virus and identify potential hotspots. 

To make COVID-19 tracking possible on a large scale, Google and Apple have teamed up to create an application-program interface that essentially logs all the other phones your phone comes into contact with over a 14-day period. Other health apps can plug into the interface. In Austria, for example, the Austrian Red Cross created a “Stopp Corona” app that uses the interface to notify users of possible exposure without sharing the identities of those who have been infected. Consumers are likely to see more contact-tracing apps debut in the coming weeks and months. 

Still, civil liberties advocates are sounding the alarm about the potential for privacy abuses. Privacy experts have voiced concern about governments using mobile-location data to enforce quarantine or lockdown orders and control the movement of citizens. In China, for example, government-required software determines who should be quarantined and who can enter public spaces. And even anonymized, aggregated data has the potential to be un-anonymized, and then breached. 

Before you decide whether or not to opt in for a self-reporting COVID-19 contact-tracing app, consider the following: 

  • How will your personal information be collected, used, and stored? 
  • How transparent is the app’s privacy policy
  • How do third-party privacy advocates rate the app? MIT Technology Review’s COVID Tracing Tracker project is just one great resource to reference. 

How else can we help? 

All of this can feel overwhelming. Is it possible to hold on to a shred of privacy in today’s digital world? In the age of COVID-19, do we have to sacrifice privacy for public health?

Luckily, if you’re a PrivacyArmor member, you have powerful privacy-shielding measures at your fingertips. If you’ve followed the steps above to enable Dark Web Monitoring, bots and human operatives are already scouring the dark corners of the internet for your details. We’ll alert you right away if we find your information in the wrong hands. 

It’s also worth noting that geo-tracking can be harnessed for good — and not just when it comes to slowing the pandemic. For example, PrivacyArmor’s social monitoring feature will alert you if content is suddenly posted to your page from a far-flung locale, which is a common sign of account takeover. Log in to the portal, and click the “Social Monitoring” tab to link your social accounts today.

In these challenging times and beyond, just remember that PrivacyArmor was designed to defend your data — so you can keep loving what technology adds to your life.

   
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