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Consumers' Location Data: Companies Take Steps to Protect Privacy, but Practices Are Inconsistent, and Risks May Not be Clear to Consumers

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Citation Edit

Government Accountability Office, Consumers' Location Data: Companies Take Steps to Protect Privacy, but Practices Are Inconsistent, and Risks May Not be Clear to Consumers (GAO-14-649T) (June 4, 2014) (full-text).

Overview Edit

While consumers can benefit from location-based services, their privacy may be at risk when companies collect and share location data. GAO found that when consumers are unaware their location data are shared and for what purpose data might be shared, they may be unable to judge whether location data are shared with trustworthy third parties.

Furthermore, when location data are amassed over time, they can create a detailed profile of individual behavior, including habits, preferences, and routes traveled—private information that could be exploited. Additionally, consumers could be at higher risk of identity theft or threats to personal safety when companies retain location data for long periods or in a way that links the data to individual consumers.

Companies can anonymize location data that they use or share, in part, by removing personally identifying information; however, in its 2013 report, GAO found that in-car navigation providers that GAO examined use different de-identification methods that may lead to varying levels of protection for consumers.

Smartphones and in-car navigation systems give consumers access to useful location-based services, such as mapping services. However, questions about privacy can arise if companies use or share consumers' location data without their knowledge.

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