GAO Confirms That Smartphone Location Tracking Poses Privacy Risk


location, smartphones, location data, privacy, social apps, mobile appsThe Government Accountability Office released a report Thursday afternoon urging more government oversight of how mobile companies use consumer location data.

Mobile phones, and especially social apps, often track users’ location. Consumers can benefit from their phones’ location tracking, such as when the device’s GPS system helps Yelp give the user a restaurant recommendation in the right neighborhood. But location data is sensitive because it can connect anonymous online identities to individuals. It can put those individuals at increased risk of crime.

The GAO confirmed that “the lack of clear disclosures to consumers about how their location data are used and shared means that consumers lack adequate information to provide informed consent about the use of these data.” It pointed to holes in the work of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, the government bodies with most influence over how companies use location data.

The NTIA is leading a government effort to address Internet privacy in collaboration with tech companies. The GAO urged it to nail down a timeline of its efforts that include addressing location privacy.

The FTC can slap Internet companies only when their actual practices diverge from their stated practices. Consumer advocates say that this puts an unreasonable burden on consumers, who must wade through long and vague or even misleading privacy policies. The GAO encouraged the FTC to be more specific about what it expects from companies and how it will enforce the prohibition on unfair practices.

“Without clearer expectations for how industry should address location privacy, consumers lack assurance that the aforementioned privacy risks will be sufficiently mitigated,” the report said.

Photo: Ilin Sergey /

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