Location Tracking: How to Protect Yourself

Last week’s post provided an overview of why it may not be a good idea to let apps (and corporations) track your location, anytime, anywhere. Check it out here.

If you’re like me and creeped out by apps collecting unnecessary data about you, especially data that tracks where you are every minute of the day, here are a few things you can try to protect yourself and your privacy.

Tip #1: Restrict Location Tracking Permissions

Go to Settings on your device, which will probably look like a tiny gear.

Within settings, look for an APPS menu, which will include options to adjust permissions. Menu options differ slightly on every device, so if you can’t find it, do a quick search to get instructions. (Search for: your device name or operating system AND “disable app permissions”)

I was surprised (and horrified) to see location was allowed on so many apps! After completing this exercise, only 10 apps now have location permissions.

Go through each app and turn off location permissions. Sometimes a warning message appears (see below). Then it’s your choice if you want to disable permissions or not. Or try disabling it and see how much functionality you lose.

Even Facebook, which I’ve never once used on my phone but can’t delete, had locations turned on by default.

Tip #2: Disable Location Permissions through your Browser

I typically use Chrome for searching, even though it’s definitely not the most robust in terms of privacy and security. However, I fool myself into thinking I’m a little safer by using add-ons to block things and by disabling permissions.

Some years ago I learned that turning off location settings on your phone (the small tear-shaped icon) is not enough to prevent your location from being tracked. You also need to disable Web & App Activity.

I get this message every time I use Google maps to look up an address. It definitely makes the app less convenient to use, but I feel more protected.

Go to settings on your device and look for Google in the menu. Look for Google Account, then Data & personalization. Find “Web & App Activity” and set it to pause.

On your computer, you’ll have to login to your Activity controls.

As mentioned earlier, the options may live in different places depending on your particular device and operating system. And of course if you use a browser other than Chrome, you’ll need to look up instructions.

Here’s a great article from The Washington Post with even more tips, “Help desk: How to fight the spies in your Chrome browser“.

And tips from Google about how to manually delete your location history.

Location Tracking: Convenience or Corporate Surveillance

As a general rule, I always prefer to restrict apps from as many permissions as possible. For many apps, this may result in limited functionality. I’ve posted about this before here.

I always have my location tracking turned off except for when I’m in a new place and I need to know my location to get accurate directions. Or sometimes I turn on location when I’m driving solo and need directions narrated to me.

I was always wary of sharing my location data, even before I started reading about the dangers of this data and how big a commodity it is. First of all, leaving location tracking on depleted my battery faster. But most of all, I didn’t like the idea of being tracked as I went about my daily business, even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Turns out my instincts and paranoia were justified. Some months ago I read a rather chilling article in the New York Times about the how easy it is to identify people from their location tracking. Many of you reading this may be thinking, “What’s the big deal. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ve got nothing to hide.” This is not true. You may have nothing to hide, but as I’ve written before, you do have something to protect, your privacy and your habits. You may have also been seduced into thinking that the conveniences you get from giving up your location is worth the tradeoff. It’s not.

Some location tracking apps (e.g., browsers, weather, fitness, etc.) record locations every few seconds, all under the guise of providing you better, customized services. This data is then sold to 3rd-party companies who analyze it to learn more about your habits and who you are. Maybe this doesn’t seem offensive if a company is tracking you or it’s something that seems harmless like a weather app.

Now imagine it was a person tracking you instead. You would likely be freaked out by this stalker-type behavior. You wouldn’t know what he was going to do with this information causing you a considerable amount of distress. Aside from the fact it’s just creepy when someone knows where you are every second of the day without your consent (obvious exceptions for knowing where your children are).

Feeling concerned? Stay tuned for next week’s posting and learn how to disarm these location tracking services.

Reruns

Sometime ago I discovered a show that my father used to like on PrimeVideo. I was very excited to discover 8 seasons available for a total of 128 episodes.

In looking at the years each season came out, I realized that my father could have only been alive for part of the first season. And yet, I have such distinct and pleasant memories of sitting and watching the program with him. In fact, I even remember him telling me about this new show and how much he enjoyed it. He encouraged me to watch it.

Sometimes when my mom comes to visit, we’ll sit together and watch a couple of episodes. Of course it’s not the same as having my father in the room, but it creates the illusion of the times we spent together all watching the same thing, at the same time. Laughing, or groaning collectively, at the same parts in the show.

Usually I like to watch it when I’m feeling a little down, or I need some comfort or a light-hearted break for my brain. Even watching it by myself, because honestly it’s the kind of show that most other people don’t enjoy watching, I can still feel that connection. The silent, inherent understanding that my father and I can still appreciate and delight in the same things, even though he’s no longer around physically.

Since most of the shows on cable TV are pretty awful, I do enjoy all the ways I can now watch things on demand. However, I can’t help but wonder if we sometimes miss out on making an effort to watch things together, knowing that it’s so easy to watch something later, on our time, on our own schedules.

Of course one of the big benefits of having things available on demand is that we can coordinate to watch something together, like a movie or show, when it’s convenient for everyone involved. It just seems that finding that suitable time gets harder and more challenging all the time.

It was a long winter and a very long, cold spring in Canada so I was a little sad to notice I’m almost finished with season 7 yesterday. But when I’m done with the whole series, I can always go back and watch the reruns again, on demand.

Iceland: Walking Through Time

The day after our amazing whale watching tour, we boarded a domestic flight and headed to the southern part of the island. We spent the day exploring Thingvellir National Park, including a walk through ever expanding tectonic plates, the famous geysirs, and of course, more waterfalls.

Upon entering the Thingvellir Park, we were greeted by a beautiful rainbow arcing across the sky. A welcome sight to break up all the gray clouds we’d been under for the past week. Unlike our first visit to the tectonic plates, where we could actually straddle the two plates, in this park we could only see one, the North American plate. The other one was approximately 6 km away with the distance getting wider each year.

I walked along the wall of the plate in awe to stand near something so majestic and ancient. I suppose the Icelanders might have felt the same way because the park also contains “The Law Rock,” the original gathering place for the chieftains where sessions of parliament were held. My photo of the actual rock wasn’t that spectacular, but the view around it is impressive.

Looking across the expanse between the two plates, I felt like I was looking at the land dinosaurs must have walked across, preserved and pristine. Like so many other places we’d already seen, it was magical. We even saw fish spawning in one of the rivers!

We left the plates and headed over to the geysirs. The smell was a bit overpowering at times, but the colors were extraordinary. In contrast to the brown, grayish earth were patches of brilliant green and tawny grasses. In the middle of the grassy areas were bubbling puddles of burning hot water.

Inside this area of the park was Strokkur, a geysir that erupts frequently, approximately every 5 – 7 minutes. We stood in rapt attention watching the subtle changes happening around the Strokkur announcing when it was going to blow. It was like watching a giant set of lungs breathe in and out, preparing for a giant, explosive exhalation. It was impressive.

Next stop, the famous Gullfoss and Faxifoss. Stay tuned!

Algorithmic Perfumery

While in Montreal for a conference/vacation, my partner and I went to an amazing exhibit at the Phi Centre. It was called “Hum(AI)n” and explored the idea of “being human in the age of technology.” In case you’re wondering, the (AI) in humain stands for “Artificial Intelligence.”

The exhibit consisted of 5 Virtual Reality (VR) movies, all 15 minutes or less, that covered a range of different experiences and topics, an algorithmic perfumery, and a room where we could interact and speak with an AI digital being, plus a few other things. In one movie, I was a glowing, gold avatar racing across the desert to change the mood of the mob of people constantly around me. In another I watched a short animation of punk music in NYC in the 1970’s. The VR seemed so real that I physically jumped during a scene featuring a NYC subway racing down the tracks and one character who purposefully crossed the yellow line. Even in a VR setting I couldn’t overcome my strong urge to stay far away from a speeding train.

By far my favorite part of the exhibit was the algorithmic perfumery. To start the process, my partner and I each filled out a questionnaire. We were asked about things like our personality, what kinds of things we liked to do, and to assess six sample scents based on our impression of how floral, sweet, woodsy, green, fresh, or sensual/non-sensual we found them. The questions were structured like a Likert scale, but allowed us to slide a dot back and forth on the scale to determine how much we liked, or didn’t like, something.

At the end of the questionnaire, the computer came up with a recipe, customized for each of us.

My partner’s unique scent that he named “Space Junkie.”

Then a small sample of our recipe was mixed right in front of us!

Each bottle to the left of the screen was filled with a particular scent that was used to create our perfumes.

Within minutes, we were presented with a sample, designed just for us. We smelled it, tried it on, then filled out a follow-up questionnaire to evaluate how we liked it, which is how the AI continues to learn for the next people.

Mine was ok, not woodsy or spicy enough. They got my partner’s name wrong on the bottle, but he seemed to like his.

The big question is, can the AI create perfume better than a human?

What are cookies? And are they bad?

Cookies are tiny packets of data that get saved to your computer every time you use a website. They are used for all kinds of things related to performance (e.g., auto-fill for passwords or logins, remembering your location and preferences, etc.) or tracking your behavior (e.g., how long you spent on a page, which items you selected for your shopping cart, etc.). Companies collect this data about us and create profiles about our habits and preferences, which are then used to send us targeted advertisements, among other things. Learn more in the video below.

Some cookies are required to use a website, but others are sometimes optional and can be inactivated. However, this means that your experience may not be as personalized. It also means you likely won’t receive as many targeted ads, which could be good or bad, depending on how you feel about them.

I’ve noticed pop-ups appearing on almost every website I look at. The pop-ups typically appear at the bottom of the screen, though sometimes at the top, and include some kind of disclaimer about the new privacy policy, cookie policy, etc. of the website. As a result of the GDPR being implemented in May 2018, companies are now required to be more transparent about how they are collecting data about us.

When you see the disclaimer, you always start with two options: accept the cookies and use the service, or reject the cookies and be denied access to the site. Some websites offer a third option to adjust your cookie preferences. If you’re paranoid like me and feel kind of irritated that companies collect personal data about you, then this could be a good option to explore. Rather than simply clicking the close box, select Cookie Preferences instead. You’ll see a whole list of the different types of cookies being used. Most of them can be inactivated, except for the the required ones.

Aside from the “strictly necessary cookies” all of the other ones can be inactivated, by sliding the active button to inactive.

This whole process takes less than a minute. It might alter your experience and make it less customized, but I feel better taking this small action to control the collection of my data and monitoring of my habits.

You can also delete saved cookies through your settings. I hadn’t done this in a while and I was shocked to see cookies for 1624 sites on my phone! Delete!