Tracking Apps Keep Your Family Secure. But Is Your Data?
Sending your loved ones out into the world can be a bit scary. From driver safety, to contact tracing for global pandemics, to simply making sure they arrive places on time, there are a variety of applications to choose from to keep loved ones safe and get help to them quickly when needed.
But in an age when your private information has become a valuable commodity, what are these applications doing with the data your family generates? Recent news reports show that one of the most popular apps — Life360 — is subsidizing “affordability” at its customers expense.
What’s going on?
Simply put, Life360 has recently been revealed to be one of the largest sources of data for the $12 billion phone location data industry. In other words, the company regularly sells the data of its millions of customers—including children. According to The Markup, “The app acts as a firehose of data for a controversial industry that has operated in the shadows with few safeguards to prevent the misuse of this sensitive information.”
In 2020, the company made $16 million—nearly 20 percent of its revenue that year—from selling location data.
The company justifies the sale of private data as a way of driving down costs for customers, but The Markup revealed that it also accounts for 20% of the company’s overall revenue. In other words, it’s likely not just a cost saving measure and the low price plans may simply be a way to lure in customers to enrich its data streams. “In 2020, the company made $16 million—nearly 20 percent of its revenue that year—from selling location data, plus an additional $6 million from its partnership with Arity.” In addition, Life360 purchased ZenScreen, which monitors a family’s screen time, and is currently in the process of purchasing Tile, a service/device for tracking small items such as bags and keys.
What exactly are they selling?
Life360 requires users to allow the broadest location permissions possible and will not function for users unless that permission is granted. Location data can be shared with the company’s data partners in as little as 20 minutes from the time users activate the service. And because it collects data directly in the app and shares it from its own proprietary servers, monitoring for privacy issues from Apple and Google is evaded.
Have you ever suddenly noticed ads from local businesses in your social media feed when you’re traveling? That’s the result of your private location data being sold.
The company claims it removes all identifying information such as usernames, emails, and phone numbers, but the sold data does include a device’s mobile advertising ID and latitude and longitude coordinates.
Have you ever suddenly noticed ads from local businesses in your social media feed when you’re traveling? Bingo. That’s the result of your private location data being sold.
So what can you do?
There are options to protect some of your private data in the Life360 app. (See The Markup article linked above for screenshots.) Look for these options in any app you use that tracks personal information such as location data.
Be careful how many of your apps “talk” to each other. Life360 is currently developing an interface to include your Tile data. While Tile does not currently sell data to third parties, there are unanswered questions about whether Tile data will be aggregated into Life360’s offerings. The more you can silo apps that gather private data, the better protected you are.
The old adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” is appropriate here. While Life360 offers low-price and even free options, the actual cost is that you are subsidizing 20% of its revenue with your personal data. Carefully consider that when deciding on a tracking app for your loved ones. For some, this is not a concern. For others, it may not be worth the “free” service.