Survey: Location History Seen As “Sensitive” By 82% Of Users

The Pew Research Center has come out with a new report about privacy attitudes in the post-Snowden, NSA surveillance era. The report is based on an early 2014 survey of 607 US adults.

The survey covers a great deal of ground, everything from government surveillance to online advertising and personalization. I’m just going to focus on the location-related findings, reflected in the chart below.

Pew Privacy

In general respondents believe they’ve lost control over their personal data and a meaningful majority want more government regulation of advertiser data-mining and targeting:

  • 91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies
  • 80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites
  • 64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34 percent who think the government should not get more involved

This should be a warning for data aggregators and mobile and location-based marketing platforms.

Regarding location history, 50% of the survey respondents said that where they had been and their movement patterns were “very sensitive” information, while another 32% said these data were “somewhat sensitive.” Only 16% were not concerned about location history being collected.

The more educated and affluent, the more survey respondents were inclined to view location history as “very sensitive.” Interestingly users under 30 were more likely than any other age group to be concerned about location. This is somewhat counter-intuitive. One would expect those over 50 to be the most concerned and those under 50 to be less concerned.

Pew location history

There are a number of mobile marketing and advertising companies using location history to create audience segments or profiles. This is one of the compelling aspects of mobile-location for marketers and brands in particular. The methodologies being used are not all identical but similar. All the involved companies uniformly say they are using privacy best practices and that all the data are anonymous and aggregated. But for those unsophisticated about these techniques (including many in the media and government officials) it often looks like individuals are being tracked.

Apple (and to a lesser extent Google) have introduced new privacy features into their latest mobile-OS updates. Apple in particular is now giving users more “location in the background” notifications and offering users more control over which apps get to see and capture location data. In effect it forces app developers and publishers to make an argument in favor of allowing them access to user location.

There’s a significant gap between the way that mobile marketing companies discuss their privacy compliant use of location and the way the press write about location data (e.g., “Your phone knows where you are. So do marketers“). It’s critically important for mobile providers and platforms to help educate the public about location and to genuinely follow privacy best practices.

If they fail to do so mobile-location will continue to be associated with “surveillance” in the media. If that continues we will start to see regulatory intervention responding to perceived consumer concerns, as expressed in surveys like this one.

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