How the Federal Government Buys Our Cell Phone Location Data

Article by Bennett Cyphers: “…Weather apps, navigation apps, coupon apps, and “family safety” apps often request location access in order to enable key features. But once an app has location access, it typically has free rein to share that access with just about anyone.

That’s where the location data broker industry comes in. Data brokers entice app developers with cash-for-data deals, often paying per user for direct access to their device. Developers can add bits of code called “software development kits,” or SDKs, from location brokers into their apps. Once installed, a broker’s SDK is able to gather data whenever the app itself has access to it: sometimes, that means access to location data whenever the app is open. In other cases, it means “background” access to data whenever the phone is on, even if the app is closed.

One app developer received the following marketing email from data broker Safegraph:

SafeGraph can monetize between $1-$4 per user per year on exhaust data (across location, matches, segments, and other strategies) for US mobile users who have strong data records. We already partner with several GPS apps with great success, so I would definitely like to explore if a data partnership indeed makes sense.

But brokers are not limited to data from apps they partner with directly. The ad tech ecosystem provides ample opportunities for interested parties to skim from the torrents of personal information that are broadcast during advertising auctions. In a nutshell, advertising monetization companies (like Google) partner with apps to serve ads. As part of the process, they collect data about users—including location, if available—and share that data with hundreds of different companies representing digital advertisers. Each of these companies uses that data to decide what ad space to bid on, which is a nasty enough practice on its own. But since these “bidstream” data flows are largely unregulated, the companies are also free to collect the data as it rushes past and store it for later use. 

The data brokers covered in this post add another layer of misdirection to the mix. Some of them may gather data from apps or advertising exchanges directly, but others acquire data exclusively from other data brokers. For example, Babel Street reportedly purchases all of its data from Venntel. Venntel, in turn, acquires much of its data from its parent company, the marketing-oriented data broker Gravy Analytics. And Gravy Analytics has purchased access to data from the brokers Complementics, Predicio, and Mobilewalla. We have little information about where those companies get their data—but some of it may be coming from any of the dozens of other companies in the business of buying and selling location data.

If you’re looking for an answer to “which apps are sharing data?”, the answer is: “It’s almost impossible to know.” Reporting, technical analysis, and right-to-know requests through laws like GDPR have revealed relationships between a handful of apps and location data brokers. For example, we know that the apps Muslim Pro and Muslim Mingle sold data to X-Mode, and that navigation app developer Sygic sent data to Predicio (which sold it to Gravy Analytics and Venntel). However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the location brokers discussed in this post obtains data from hundreds or thousands of different sources. Venntel alone has claimed to gather data from “over 80,000” different apps. Because much of its data comes from other brokers, most of these apps likely have no direct relationship with Venntel. As a result, the developers of the apps fueling this industry likely have no idea where their users’ data ends up. Users, in turn, have little hope of understanding whether and how their data arrives in these data brokers’ hands…(More)”.