Innovation That Matters

Location tracking can allow almost anyone to find you - which has pros and cons. | Photo source Henry Perks on Unsplash

Pros and Cons: Location tracking

Computing & Tech

What are the pros and cons of location tracking, and is it worth giving up some privacy in order to feel more secure or be more social?

Location tracking can help make life more convenient, making it easy to find nearby restaurants or to hire an Uber for example. However, there are also a growing number of people worried about the other side of location tracking – the thought that Google or other companies might know your every movement. So, what are the pros and cons of location tracking, and is it worth giving up some privacy in order to feel more secure or be more social?

Advantages of location tracking 

One of the biggest advantages of having GPS tracking on your mobile phone is that it allows emergency responders to easily find you during an emergency. Previously, emergency services used triangulation to estimate the callers’ location by measuring signal strength from mobile masts. This takes time and is less accurate than GPS tracking. 

Tracking can also help you locate your brand new €1,000 phone when you have left it on the train or if it is stolen. Many high-end cell phones can now track a missing device using its GPS receiver. They can also provide real-time updates of the phone’s current location. As long as the device is active and charged, it can continue to broadcast its tracking signal until you catch up with it. 

This same system can also allow you to keep tabs on your children or other family members. If you are worried about your child or an elderly relative getting lost, GPS tracking allows you to know exactly where they are. 

GPS tracking systems are not just for people. They are also installed in many new cars and allow a car’s location to be tracked remotely. In addition, these systems can automatically call for help in the case of an accident and allow remote operators to unlock your car if you lose your keys or lock them inside the car. 

Many social networking applications also use location tracking to provide information about friends in the area, allowing you to more easily locate each other and meet up. For example, Google Maps has a feature that allows others to follow your progress during a specific trip. The Glympse app allows users to share their location for a limited period of time, which in theory prevents the app from being abused by stalkers. And there is Apple’s Find My Friends app, which lets users permanently share their location with friends.  

The downsides of location tracking

Just as GPS trackers allow users to share their location with friends and family, they also allow users to inadvertently share their whereabouts with stalkers. This is particularly dangerous for children, especially as some apps give almost anyone permission to track their location. Parents should always create restrictions that prohibit their children from adding followers inside the app and consider blocking any apps which do not have this feature.

Companies can also take advantage of location trackers to send targeted ads. But that is not all. Many companies now use location tracking to follow you all the time, building up a profile of your habits that they can sell on to advertisers. Some people don’t mind that advertisers know exactly where they are and what they are up to. But if you aren’t careful with your privacy settings, advertisers will not be the only ones who can stalk you. “Checking in” at locations while running errands provides potential thieves with detailed knowledge of your daily schedule.

A recent story from the US revealed that mobile phone carriers were selling real-time customer location information to data brokers. These brokers then sold the information to law enforcement and others, avoiding the “annoying” formality of gaining a court order. It is not only criminals who should be worried about this – the data brokers could be selling your location data to anyone. The phone carriers claim to have stopped this practice.

Most security experts agree that it is almost impossible to stop location tracking on your smartphone or through its apps. In fact, many apps will not work without location tracking. Some suggest that this is a reason for us to embrace location sharing. Others argue this means it has gotten out of control. For the majority of people, the benefits likely outweigh the risks. But for those who are trying to hide – whether from bullies, stalkers, creeps or Johnny law – it is best to turn off your phone’s location-sharing tools.