Cellphones Are Constantly Collecting Location Data. But For What Purpose?

When you think about location data on your mobile phone, tablet or laptop, what comes to mind? Mailing addresses? Postal codes? These data indicate where you live, where you work, and the places you visit.

When combined with other types of data over time, companies and governments use them to analyse your consumption patterns, occupation, education, health and financial status.

Turning location services off only prevents smartphone apps from receiving location data. Smartphones can still be located by cell towers and wireless networks when location services are switched off.

This was highlighted by German politician Malte Spitz over a decade ago when he sued his cellphone provider, Deutsche Telekom, for any personal data they had about him.

When the case was settled and he eventually received the data, Spitz found 35,000 references to his location. He was able to visually reconstruct his movements over the previous six months, demonstrating the relevance of data protection laws to the public.

But there is more. By using critical code and documentary research methods, we found that raw satellite location measurement data are perpetually created in our devices all the time.

Because satellite data are building blocks used by our phones to determine where we are, they don’t always get turned off – nor are they collected and treated the same way as location data.

Data outputs

Smartphones determine your location in several ways. The first way involves phones triangulating distances between cell towers or Wi-Fi routers.

The second way involves smartphones interacting with navigation satellites. When satellites pass overhead, they transmit signals to smartphones, which allows smartphones to calculate their own location. This process uses a specialised piece of hardware called the Global Navigation Satellite System chipset. Every smartphone has one.

When these Global Navigation Satellite System chipsets calculate navigation satellite signals, they output data in two standardised formats (known as protocol or languages): the Global Navigation Satellite System raw measurement protocol and the National Marine Electronics Association protocol 0183.

Read about how India’s push for home-grown navigation system NavIC jolted smartphone giants.

If you’re curious to delve deeper into the topic, read more about it here.

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