FTC Urged To Crack Down On 'Location Data' Industry

Companies that participate in the collection and sale of location data often deceive consumers by using confusing language to describe their practices, burying disclosures in lengthy privacy policies, or representing that location information is “anonymous,” advocates say in a new petition to the Federal Trade Commission.

“The location data industry thrives by engaging in practices likely to mislead consumers,” the Muslim civil liberties group Council on American-Islamic Relations argues to the FTC in a petition filed Tuesday by the communications and technology law clinic at Georgetown University Law Center.

“The shock and outrage expressed by consumers once they learn their location data has been provided to third parties confirms they have been misled by the disclosures,” the group adds.

The “location data industry” is made up of a variety of businesses, including operating system developers, app developers, software development kit developers, participants in real-time bidding and data brokers, according to the advocacy group.

These companies fail to adequately disclose their practices, or obtain users' consent to the data collection, the group alleges.

One app mentioned in the petition has a policy that is more than 11,000 words, “with meandering, complicated sentences.”

Another app cited in the petition says, “We may use your location to show you tips when you’re in participating location venues, and we may share this information with our trusted partners,” but does not elaborate on the venues or partners.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations also says privacy policies mislead consumers by stating that location data is anonymous, when that data can be linked with other information to piece together consumers' identities.

The organization says the location data industry disproportionately harms American Muslims, arguing that information about the locations of Muslims “has special value because it facilitates warrantless surveillance of individuals historically targeted by law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the military.”

The group references news articles, including a 2020 Motherboard report detailing how the military purchases location data from intermediaries that obtain the data from developers of apps like the prayer app Muslim Pro.

“Revelations that some of the most popular apps among Muslims were sharing their location data with defense contractors and the military compounded a sense of constant surveillance inside the Muslim community, leading many American Muslims to either stop using apps or take other steps to avoid the deceptive practices,” the petition states.

The organization is urging the FTC to take action against “location data” companies that engage in deceptive or unfair practices, and to either issue new guidance or investigate the industry.

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