The Sad Truth of the FTC’s Location Data Privacy Settlement

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The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement last week with an American data broker known to sell location data gathered from hundreds of phone apps to the US government, among others. According to the agency, the company ignored in some cases the requests of consumers not to do so, and more broadly failed to ensure that users were notified of how their harvested data would be used.

News that the settlement requires the company, formerly known as X-Mode, to stop selling people’s “sensitive location data” was met with praise from politicians calling the outcome “historic” and reporters who deemed the settlement a “landmark” win for the American consumer. This “major privacy win,” as one outlet put it, will further require the company, rebranded as Outlogic after its activities were exposed, to delete all of the data it has illicitly gathered so far.

Outlogic, for its part, offered a drastically different take, denying any wrongdoing and vowing that the FTC order would “not require any significant changes” to its practices or products. While the company is potentially downplaying the cost to its business, it is certainly true that any ripples from the settlement will be imperceptible to consumers and Outlogic’s industry at large—one which profits by selling Americans’ secrets to spy agencies, police, and the US military, helping the government to dodge the supervision of the courts and all its pesky warrant requirements.

The FTC’s crackdown on X-Mode’s activities may indeed be historic, but from a consumer standpoint, it’s for all the wrong reasons. First, it’s important to understand that the order concerns what the FTC is calling “sensitive location data,” a term of art impressively deluding and redundant at the same time. Any data that exhaustively chronicles a person’s physical presence—every moment of every day—is inherently sensitive.

There is no question that persistently tracking people’s whereabouts reveals political, religious, and even sexual associations. The act of collecting this data is a sweeping form of surveillance no matter the target. While it is easier, perhaps, to imagine how guests of “medical and reproductive health clinics, places of religious worship and domestic abuse shelters” are especially vulnerable to commercial forms of stalking, there are myriad ways in which people’s whereabouts, once exposed, can endanger or ruin their lives.

Location data is inherently sensitive—so says society, an overwhelming consensus of privacy experts, and the highest court in the land.

One need only look to Congress to understand the level of fear that this precise form of surveillance inspires in those who’ve never been battered, stalked, or unhoused. Members of the House Intelligence Committee—most of whom lack an internal reproductive system—are vying at this very moment to shield federal lawmakers alone from this precise form of tracking.

Given the current political climate, it’s not hard to imagine why politicians are afraid of surrendering their location data, leaving it accessible to virtually anyone on the cheap. But they are relatively few in number, and hardly any of them fall into the category of “most at-risk” for violence and discrimination. Unlike those who do, members of Congress have the unique power to change the law and protect themselves. Given the opportunity, that’s precisely what many have opted to do—just as they did a year earlier for federal judges.

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