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Catalina Lobo-Guerrero is a freelance journalist and anthropologist currently living in Barcelona, Spain. For the past decade she has been working as an investigative journalist and correspondent in Bogotá, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela where has written about politics, corruption, the armed conflict and violence. Her work has been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, El País and other smaller and independent media outlets in Latin America.
Data is everything for companies these days. We think we can control how much information they have on us, but we always seem to be two steps behind. In fact, they are literally following all of our steps in real time, even though we switch off the data location tracking function on our apps.
This is what Jennifer Valentino-De Vries, an investigative tech reporter at the New York Times (NYT), discovered when she started looking into companies like Groundtruth, which used data location information services. They did not want to talk about how they worked and how much data they would sell to their clients, but they had webinars online where they showed extensive tracking of people everywhere they went.
Valentino was planning to write a story without going in too deep when she came across a set of data that was disturbing. It showed dots moving around, second by second, block by block, in New York City. Every dot on the screen was an instant in which a single person's location had been sold to a company. There were millions on the screen—more precisely, 235 million locations captured from 1.2 million devices in just three days in 2017.
The journalists at the NYT followed some of the dots at specific locations. They could trace them back to their homes, to a nuclear power plant or the city's mayor's office. They even discovered that one person's location had been sold over 14,000 times in one day to several companies.
How many of these people-dots were aware that they were being followed all the time, every day? Location-based mobile ads are becoming increasingly popular by all kinds of businesses. Google and Apple, the so called "gatekeepers", say they care about people's privacy, but they are failing to notify them when apps are monitoring them. As of now there are really no laws or regulations against companies collecting users' data. They know exactly where you've been and where you're going.