Over at the New York Times, an insightful series of articles on privacy continues to give consumers disturbing peeks at how the sausage gets made in the surveillance capitalism business. The episode on mobile location tracking is arguably one of the more visceral episodes, demonstrating the ability to isolate individuals as they travel from sensitive locations— the Pentagon, White House, CIA parking-lot— back to their own residence. This type of surveillance capability is not in the hands of a hostile nation state (at least not directly; there is no telling where the data ends up downstream after it is repeatedly repurposed and sold) It is masterminded by run-of-the-mill technology companies foisting their surveillance operation on unsuspecting users in the guise of helpful mobile applications.
But NYT misses the mark on how users can protect themselves. Self-help guide dutifully points out users can selectively disable location permission for apps:
The most important thing you can do now is to disable location sharing for apps already on your phone.
Many apps that request your location, like weather, coupon or local news apps, often work just fine without it. There’s no reason a weather app, for instance, needs your precise, second-by-second location to provide forecasts for your city.
This is correct in principle. For example Android makes it possible to view which apps have access to location and retract that permission anytime. The only problem is many apps will demand that permission right back or refuse to function. This is a form of institutionalized extortion, normalized by the expectation that most applications are “free,” which is to say they are subsidized by advertising that in turn draws on pervasive data collection. App developers withhold useful functionality from customers unless the customer agrees to give up their privacy and capitulates to this implicit bargain.
Interestingly there is a more effective defense available to consumers on Android, but it is currently hampered by a half-baked implementation. Almost accidentally, Android allows designating an application to provide alternative location information to the system. This feature is intended primarily for those developing Android apps, buried deep under developer options.
It is helpful for an engineer developing an Android app in San Francisco to be able to simulate how her app will behave for a customer located in Paris or Zanzibar, without so much as getting out of her chair. Not surprisingly there are multiple options in PlayStore that help set artificial locations and even simulate movement. Here is Location Changer configured to provide a static location:
(There would be a certain irony in this app being advertising supported, if it were not common for privacy-enhancing technologies to be subsidized by business models not all that different from the ones they are allegedly protecting against.)
At first this looks like a promising defense against pervasive mobile tracking. Data-hungry tracking apps are happy, still operating under the impression that they retain their entitlement to location data and track users at will. (There is no indication the data is not coming from the GPS and is instead provided by another mobile app.) Because that data no longer reflects the actual position of the device, its disclosure is harmless.
That picture breaks down quickly on closer look. The first problem is that the simulated location is indiscriminately provided to all apps. That means not only invasive surveillance apps but also legitimate apps with perfectly good justification for location data will receive bogus information. For example here is Google Maps also placing the user in Zanzibar, somewhat complicating driving directions:
The second problem is that common applications providing simulated location only have rudimentary capabilities, such as reporting a fixed location or simulating motion along a simple linear path— one that goes straight through buildings, tunnels under natural obstacles and crosses rivers. It would be trivial for apps to detect such anomalies and reject the location data or respond with additional prompts to shame the device owner into providing true location. (Most apps do not appear to be making that effort today, probably because few users have resorted to this particular subterfuge. But under an adversarial model, we have to assume that once such tactics are widespread, surveillance apps will respond by adding such detection capabilities.)
What is required is a way to provide realistic location information that is free of anomalies, such as a device stuck at the same location for hours or suddenly “teleported” across hundreds of miles. Individual consumers have access to a relatively modest sized corpus of such data— their own past history. In theory we can all synthesize realistic looking location data for the present by sampling and remixing past location history. This solution is still unsatisfactory since it is still built on data sampled from a uniquely identifiably individual. That holds even if the simulated app is replaying an ordinary day in the life over and over again in a Groundhog Day loop. It may hold no new information about her current whereabouts, but it still reveals information about the person. For example, the simulated day will likely start and end at their home residence. What is needed is a way to synthesize realistic location information based on actual data from other people.
Of course a massive repository of such information exists in the hands of one company that arguably bears most responsibility for creating this problem in the first place: Google. Because Google also collects location information from hundreds of millions of iPhone and Android users, the company can craft realistic location data that can help users the renegotiate the standard extortion terms with apps by feeding them simulated data.
Paradoxically, Google as a platform provider is highly motivated to not provide such assistance. That is a consequence of the virtuous cycle that sustains platforms such as Android: more users make the platform attractive to developers who are incentivized to write new apps and the resulting ecosystem of apps in turn makes the platform appealing to users. In a parallel to what has been called the original sin of the web— reliance on free content subsidized by advertising— that ecosystem of mobile apps is largely built around advertising which is in turn fueled by surveillance of users. Location data is a crucial part of that surveillance operation. Currently developers face a simple, binary model for access to location. Either location data is available, as explicitly requested by the application manifest or it has been denied, in the unlikely scenario of a privacy-conscious user after having read one too many troubling articles on privacy. There is no middle ground where convincing but bogus location data has been substituted to fool the application at the user’s behest. Enabling that options will clearly improve privacy for end-users. But it will also rain on the surveillance business model driving the majority of mobile apps.
This is a situation where the interests of end-users and application developers are in direct conflict. Neither group directly has a business relationship Google—no one has to buy a software license for their copy of Android and only a fraction of users have paying subscriptions from Google. Past history on this is not encouraging. Unless a major PR crisis or regulatory intervention forces their hand, platform owners side with app developers, for good reasons. Compared to the sporadic hand-wringing about privacy among consumers, professional developers are keenly aware of their bottom line at all times. They will walk away from a platform if it becomes too consumer-friendly and interferes in cavalier tracking and data-collection practices that help keep afloat advertising-supported business models.