There’s no denying that cell phone technology has improved each of our lives in meaningful ways. Our phones keep us in touch with friends, plugs us into world news, and even shows us where to go when we’re lost. It’s the last of these – GPS cell phone tracking – that proves the most ethically problematic, and gives smartphone users the most pause. GPS is a nearly indispensable technology, but it also calls into question whether our data is truly our own.
Let’s try to clear up some of the common misconceptions, and we’ll take a look at what remains and whether or not it constitutes a threat to individual privacy and liberty.
To begin with, GPS cell phone tracking is, generally speaking, a technology that the user must opt to use. The other side of that coin is that they are fully capable of opting out by choosing a phone without GPS. Certain phones even allow the user to select which apps and services have access to the GPS, thereby limiting the tracking that occurs.
Aside from providing driving directions, though, what reason would your phone have to track your location? To begin with, ads will sometimes use GPS in order to provide geographically relevant ads. This is a common occurrence, whether you’re surfing the web on your phone or your desktop computer. Google, which makes most of its money by providing ads, uses this targeting advertising technique frequently.
Your phone may also use GPS to tag any photographs you take with location data, providing one more way that you can sort those photos later on when you’re making your digital photo albums. Again, though, chances are good that this is a service that you can opt out of through your phone’s settings menu.
If you keep up with news from the tech world, you were probably aware in recent months of a number of controversies involving GPS cell phone tracking. Certain pointed questions were raised by those in the media about what, exactly, the world’s tech companies were doing with our personal GPS data.
The concern was arguably a reasonable one. It’s been a rule of thumb for quite some time that if you can’t figure out what a company is selling, it’s probably us. That’s how Google and Facebook have made their billions: by selling our personal information – which we freely provided them with – to those who would pay for it, all in the name of selling more relevant ads.
The question of location data became a tinder box when people started figuring out that our digital lives are not wholly our own. Images sprang into peoples’ heads of g-men in dark rooms tracking our every movement, whether we’re driving to work, visiting family, or just going for a Sunday drive.
A common argument is that "those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear." That completely side-steps the issue, however. What we need to take away from this great debate is that we need to demand greater transparency from the companies to whom we’ve vouchsafed our data.
At the end of the day, however, it’s easy to see that GPS tracking is a hugely useful and paradigm-shifting tool for all involved. It just comes down to how we use it.