If you’ve ever opened Google Maps, Uber, Lyft, a Weather App, or one of hundreds of other apps you may have been prompted with a request to share your location. With some apps like Weather and Maps, this makes sense. But sometimes an app that has no need for location data will ask for this, like a game or even a flash light app. Why is this?

The Short Answer: This is used for advertisers.

When you see an ad on your phone for anything, a coke, a Ford, Nike, a local restaurant, or anything else, that advertiser decided to buy that particular ad based on what they know about the device and the user; aka Data. The most valuable piece of data that advertisers look for is location.

With location data an advertiser can determine not just where you are, but what kind of consumer you are. Are you in a warm weather climate where shorts may be in season, or a cold weather climate where wool jackets are more the style? Are you near a retail location, have you recently been to a competitor’s store, are you in a high household income neighborhood?

Those questions and much more can be answered by location data. Therefore, any app that wants to sell ads to advertisers wants to include location data because it makes their inventory more valuable.

And to get this location data, you the consumer must do two things.

  • Turn location services on, on your device (most people do this)
  • Let the app access that data

However, like everything in life, there’s more to the story.

Have you ever seen a notification that says “This app has been accessing your location in the background. Do you want to continue?” If you’ve seen that message it’s because the app is collecting that data not just when you’re using it, but when it’s in open in the background.

If that’s hard to understand, it’s important to remember that when you leave an app on your phone, you’re not closing the app but merely minimizing it until you want to access it again.

Think about when you use a program like Chrome or Word on a desktop. You might minimize it to open another program, then go back to Chrome or Word later. You can close it outright, but that means restarting it each time you want to use it, so instead you just minimize it until you’re ready to go back. Apps work the same way.

You can go and actually close down an app, but if you don’t do this each time you’re done using an app, it is still running in the background, using up battery and potentially collecting data like your location.

If an app is collecting location data in the background it’s likely sending that data to a third party in order to better understand the user that device belongs to. It can see where the device goes, what times of the day it’s active, and tons of other data. A third party data company can use this information to better understand the consumer habits of that device’s owner so that when an app is opened and selling an ad, there is plenty of data to sell to advertisers.

To be clear, this information does not include PII (Personally Identifiable Information). It’s something like, Device12345ABCDE was at Lat/Long XXX, -YYY. Not “John Smith was at his sister’s house.”

Location data is a super important part of digital advertising and something nearly everyone with a mobile device is participating in. Now the next time you see an ad, think about what data that advertiser was looking for in order to serve it to you.

TL;DR – Apps collect your location data while you use them and while they’re run in the background in order to enhance the data they provide to advertisers, therefore making their ad inventory more valuable.

Courses That Cover Location Data: