The danger of sharing location data, and how you can protect your privacy when on the go.
Data brokers around the world are willing to pay a fortune to get a hold of your priceless location data.
Your location history can reveal a lot about you.
If someone can use your location data to gain insights about your current location or typical movement pattern, they can either sell the data for millions or know how to precisely advertise to you.
Let’s look at a quick example.
Every day at 1 PM you get into your car, open your map app of choice, pick your nearest supermarket, and go grab a quick lunch. With that information, companies can show advertisements of different restaurants around you at that exact time. Also, by knowing which restaurant you go to often, they know what kind of food you like which helps them build your profile.
Another example — let’s say you are planning a proposal, so every weekend you start visiting event spaces and ring shops. Your map app knows where you are going and it will start showing you ads about different event spaces, caterers, and jewelry stores. Now, some company knows about your intimate desires and plans, even before some of your closest friends and family.
The point I am making is this: there’s a lot of money to be made by selling location data.
What is the biggest source of location data? Whatever Map app you use — Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, etc.
Depending on the companies behind these apps and their business model, your map data can be used to monetize you. You become the product. With access to this location, you can be manipulated ever so subtly by sneaky ad campaigns. Even worse, if a data leak were to happen, your deepest and darkest secrets will be sold to the highest bidders on the dark web.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention when choosing your map app.
In this blog post, I will show you how Apple Maps protects your privacy while giving you all the helpful map features and why you should pick Apple Maps over the myriad of other apps in the App Store.
No Personalized Identifier
I know what your biggest question is right now:
How come Apple Maps data is private when everything I do on my device is linked to my Apple ID?
That was my first question as well when I started learning more about how Apple Maps work.
According to Apple:
The data that Maps collects while you see the app — like search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information — is associated with random identifiers, not your Apple ID. These identifiers reset themselves as you use the app to ensure the best possible experience and to improve Maps.
In plain terms — Apple does not tie these data to your unique identifier. So, they can’t use the data to build a profile for your Apple ID based on your interests or most frequented locations.
Fragmented & Anonymized Routes
Let’s say you are going from point A to point B. Apple does not know that information.
According to Apple (via this blog):
When you use Apple Maps, your route from A to B is fragmented into scrambled sections on Apple servers because nobody else should know your entire route. Not even us. In fact, we don’t even know who requests a route.
It further goes on to say:
Apple Maps uses a random identifier, which means any route requests made on your iPhone are assigned a random identification value rather than labeling you as the sender. So both you and your route stay anonymous.
I think the last part is crucial. Both you and your route information stay anonymous. Even Apple servers do not have the information.
Everything Stays On Your iPhone
If you have used Apple Maps before, you must have come across a variety of super useful features. Some of these include:
- Favorite locations or pins
- Finding your parked car
- Suggested route based on time of day
How can Apple know about all these, while at the same time not having access to these in Apple servers?
It’s simple. All this data is computed, encrypted, and stored on your iPhone. The computations don’t happen in the Apple servers. Today’s iPhones are mighty powerful to do these and so much more.
To summarize, according to Apple:
Many helpful features, like finding your parked car, are created using data on your device. This helps minimize the amount of data sent to Apple servers.
Syncing Between Devices
If you have been paying attention so far, you must be wondering:
If everything stays on my iPhone, how come I can see the data on my other Apple devices?
That’s a great question!
According to Apple:
Maps keep your personal data in sync across all your devices using end-to-end encryption.
I plan on writing about end-to-end encryption soon. In a nutshell, if things are properly end-to-end encrypted, only the possessor of the private key can read the information. In this case, that will be all your Apple devices.
Apple servers cannot read the information. If they even keep the encrypted data around during the syncing process, it’s a bunch of 0s and 1s that do not mean anything to them. So, naturally, they cannot be used to build a profile or show you advertisements.
Even though your location data is anonymized and cannot be linked to your Apple ID, precise location can still be used to infer your location.
Let’s say regularly your route originates from your precise home address. Even if that home address is linked to a constantly changing random identifier, it’s still possible to do a reverse lookup of the address and find out who resides there; hence revealing your identity.
To protect against this, Apple uses something called “Location Fuzzing”.
According to Apple:
Maps go even further to obscure your location on Apple servers when you search using a process called “fuzzing”. Because your location can give away your identity, Maps converts the precise location where your search originated to a less exact one after 24 hours.
It goes on to say:
Apple doesn’t retain a history of what you have searched for or where you have been.
It’s Not All Rosy
I hope by now you can appreciate the different features Apple has implemented to protect your privacy.
However, there are a few important things to remember.
Apple’s code is not open-source. So, we will have to take them at their word. There have been “audits” by folks looking at different iOS source codes, but we have zero visibility into what happens in the Apple servers.
Also, it’s important to mention Apple’s recent venture into the advertising market.
In the world of technology, things can change almost overnight.
As a result, it’s important to keep an eye out for any future changes to Apple’s privacy approach.
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