Imagine if someone offered to pay less than a penny for your location history.
That would include where you've been and when you were, down to the exact latitude and longitude. That sensitive information would go to advertisers in many fields, including politics, health care, restaurants and entertainment.
Chances are, you'd say no to that offer -- but that's exactly how much Reveal Mobile, a location-based marketing and analytics firm, agreed to pay for data from GasBuddy, an app designed to help you find the cheapest gas station prices in your area.
Free apps that offer services like GasBuddy often come with a price, as users agree to provide their data without being aware of the terms tucked away in the privacy policies. In an investigative report on Monday, The New York Times highlighted how widespread these apps are and their ability to track people in homes, hospitals, schools and offices.
The location data is extracted from innocuous-looking apps that offer a service, like weather reports and sports scores. These apps typically need your location to work -- like providing local forecasts -- and then quietly sell your location data to marketers.
It's a lucrative business -- analysts valued the location-based marketing industry at $20.5 billion in September. But consumers are starting to take a more critical look as privacy concerns over big tech spiked in 2018 thanks to controversies like Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal.
"GasBuddy relies on location data to serve local gas prices, station information and station directions to users in need of fuel. As a free app, we depend on advertising and data licensing," a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
According to court documents filed in 2017, GasBuddy agreed to sell location data to Reveal Mobile for $9.50 per thousand users. The agreement started on March 1, 2017, and GasBuddy provided Reveal Mobile with data on users' latitude, longitude, IP address and time stamps on the data collected.
The app used your location data, even when it wasn't open. It has more than 10 million installs on Android devices.
While there was no personal information like names attached with the data, GasBuddy provided users' AdID, a unique code used for advertisements that follow people around online.
In invoices sent from July to September of 2017, GasBuddy provided location data to Reveal Mobile on more than 4.5 million users per month. That data cost Reveal Mobile more than $40,000 a month.
The contract between GasBuddy and Reveal Mobile allowed the marketing company to provide that data to another third-party company, as long as it was considered a "whitelist customer" by GasBuddy.
Customers on GasBuddy's whitelist included people in the advertising industry, data aggregators, and marketers for politics, public service, restaurants, social media, and insurance.
The contract and multiple invoices became public documents in November 2017 after Reveal Mobile failed to pay GasBuddy for months, according to court records. Reveal Mobile accrued a debt of $219,326.31 when GasBuddy filed the lawsuit.
GasBuddy filed to drop the case in January this year. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman noted that GasBuddy allows users to opt out of location tracking in its settings.
Despite Reveal Mobile's legal dispute with GasBuddy, the company still has its location-gathering code in more than 500 apps, including an earthquake alert tool, a weather app and multiple local news apps. Reveal Mobile didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The public concern over privacy issues has prompted lawmakers in the US to create a federal data privacy bill, following the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in May.
"Jaw-dropping evidence that Americans are being kept in the dark about the personal data companies are collecting, what's being done with it, and how much that data is worth," Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a tweet. "Consumers are paying with their data, but have no way to find out if they're getting a fair deal."
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