We have to pay better attention to who and what has access to our data

Knowing exactly what we are consenting to is the first step in protecting our privacy.

What has your smartphone been telling third parties about you today? Photo: Zeh Daruwalla/The Peak

By: Connor Stephenson, SFU Student

Few of us, if any, read user agreements prior to entering personal information or allowing applications to track our location. This is incredibly convenient for data corporations. The legal requirements for your explicit consent are camouflaged in microscopic print that seems to go on for pages and pages. As such, we are basically signing away our privacy rights, all to access the latest trend in smartphone applications.

A recent New York Times op-ed outlined how location tracking services embedded in smartphone apps are being archived and disseminated by data corporations. The thought of this occurring without users’ knowledge is both unsettling and enigmatic. An investigation led to the revelation that millions of Americans are having their locations tracked through their smartphones. And since the practice is legal in the U.S., the applied uses of location data are endless. Although the article is focused on the U.S. population, the same deceptive methods are carried out in Canada, as well. 

A 2018 report by The CBC names major Canadian telecoms complicit in the mining and selling of users’ location data. Any time you allow an app to use your location data, you are essentially “consenting” to having your location data collected and stored. Even if you don’t want your data distributed, once consent is given, these companies are legally permitted to obtain user locations — among other personal information — and sell that information to third parties.  

Although the laws in Canada and the U.S. demand different levels of oversight, the telecommunication companies operating in Canada are doing just enough to remain barely legal. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says that “meaningful consent” must be obtained prior to gathering personal data. However, even if individuals do consent, are they aware of what they are consenting to?

Some of us here at SFU might be indifferent about this issue, saying, “Who cares if our locations are being perpetually tracked?” and “who cares what companies have access to this information?” It seems that we care about consent only when it is convenient, or when the potential for misuse is directly perceptible in our everyday lives. 

These data corporations are betting on us being too lazy to investigate exactly what we are consenting to. However, our growing reliance on technology and the rate at which it is being developed and distributed continues to blur the lines of cyber ethics. This makes government oversight over these companies increasingly difficult to legislate and enforce, thus delegating the task of trying to interpret “meaningful consent” onto the user.   

Aside from reading the entirety of the user agreement — which I don’t expect anyone is going to do — there are a few relatively easy ways of lessening the likelihood that your location will be tracked. Start by limiting the number of applications that operate using location services. Turn off location services for programs that are still able to operate without them. 

Even taking these precautions, there is evidence that your location is still tracked, notwithstanding users’ explicit instructions not to. There’s no reason why we should make this any easier on data miners. Educate yourself on what your phone is doing behind the scenes and protect yourself — and your location — from prying eyes.