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Is nothing private anymore? The FTC says apparently not as it sues a data collection company

Expert weighs in with ways people can lower their exposure to being tracked

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has served notice that there are limits to how far a person can be tracked. In a new lawsuit against data broker Kochava Inc. the agency claims that Kochava sold geolocation data from “hundreds of millions of mobile devices that can be used to trace the movements of individuals to and from sensitive locations.” 

And sensitive it is. The FTC said that Kochava’s data has the potential to reveal everything from someone’s visit to reproductive health clinics to places of worship, and even deeply personal facilities like homeless and domestic violence shelters, and addiction recovery locations. 

By selling data that tracks people, the FTC considers that Kochava is enabling others to identify individuals and exposing them to threats of stigma, stalking, discrimination, job loss, and even physical violence. 

“Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy and halt the sale of their sensitive geolocation information.”

The FTC’s lawsuit seeks to halt Kochava’s sale of sensitive geolocation data and require the company to delete the sensitive geolocation information it has collected. 

While Kochava may not be a household name, it’s a considerable force when it comes to data. The company claims it has more than 4,500 “partner integrations” and its clients are a who’s who of consumer-focused companies including Airbnb, Kroger, McDonald’s, Disney, John Hancock, Chick-fil-A, and CBS.

ConsumerAffairs reached out to Kochava, but did not receive an immediate response.

FTC wants this type of collection stopped now

The Kochava lawsuit may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to data collection. The FTC’s not showing its hand, but recently it went on record as saying that almost everything a consumer touches and places they go can be collected. 

“Smartphones, connected cars, wearable fitness trackers, ‘smart home’ products, and even the browser you’re reading this on are capable of directly observing or deriving sensitive information about users,” the agency said. 

“These data points may pose an incalculable risk to personal privacy. Now consider the unprecedented intrusion when these connected devices and technology companies collect that data, combine it, and sell or monetize it. This isn’t the stuff of dystopian fiction. It’s a question consumers are asking right now.”

How people can minimize their exposure to location tracking

Location tracking is important to not just Kochava, but lots of agencies that collect data and then offer it to advertisers and vendors who want to provide a better user experience or feed information that might be of more interest to the user, says Jon Clay, vice president of Threat Intelligence at Trend Micro

“While this may be a good thing as it delivers relevant information to the user as they change locations or visit areas where they've never been before, there is a potential for this to be abused by malicious actors,” Clay told ConsumerAffairs. “From scammers to criminals to worse, if this data gets into the wrong hands, these people could target the user."

Clay says that where the question of risk comes up is the crossroads of whether the benefits outweigh the potential harm that could occur.

“The FTC suing an organization that sells this data to others is a potential game changer as it should cause other data processors to rethink their business practices and ability to secure their customer data,” he said.

If consumers are lucky, Clay said that they’re likely to see regulations start to be created that help consumers be more in charge of their data instead of "the opposite as it is now.” Until then, what can someone do? Clay offered these suggestions on how people can help manage their data now:

  • Turn off location tracking on your mobile devices. On an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy, then select Location Services. Select an app, then turn Precise Location on or off. On an Android device, open your phone's Settings app. Under "Personal," tap Location access. At the top of the screen, turn Access to my location on or off.

  • Look to use browsers that don't gather your data or limit what your browser can track

  • Opt out of ad tracking and opt out of ads altogether. Here’s one way to do that.

  • Control what permissions you give apps on your mobile devices. Here’s how to do that on an Android device and how to do it on an Apple device.

  • Install a modern security app that can detect scams or threats in email, texts, and voice. Clay said his company's free Trend Micro Check tool can do that, as well as identify fraud and misinformation.

  • Regularly check your online accounts for suspicious activity

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