Location data is getting a lot of attention lately — most recently thanks to the Federal Trade Commission’s announcement that it is “committed to fully enforcing” laws that protect sensitive data, including location and health, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. This is part of a long-running saga that includes Vice calling out data brokers for selling data sets of devices that visited abortion clinics, a Catholic priest whose “commercially available” mobile data outed him as a Grindr user and visitor of gay bars, and the New York Times highlighting devices at the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.
Location data has always been creepy. When we agree to allow an app to access our location, we do so with the expectation that the app will navigate us to a destination, recommend restaurants nearby, or give us the local weather. Users don’t necessarily expect an app to pass their location data onto data brokers, who in turn sell their data to marketers, law enforcement, or anyone with a credit card.
So, it’s no surprise that the FTC is putting renewed focus on location data. And the proposed federal privacy bill labels precise geolocation as sensitive data and would limit companies to collecting or processing geolocation for “strictly necessary” reasons — and no, advertising is not a qualifying reason. This comes off the heels of state privacy laws from California, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia, which also consider precise geolocation as restricted sensitive data.
For marketers, location data seems to be the latest item on the data deprecation chopping block. Rather than wait and see what happens with FTC enforcement or the federal privacy bill, marketers should:
- Evaluate your use cases for location data today. Are you using location data for ad targeting, in-app features, or measuring foot traffic? Look at your use of location data across channels and formats to understand if you’re using this data in a first-party or third-party context, for what purposes, and whether your customers or app users would reasonably expect those purposes. That can help you identify the use cases that are likely going to be at risk in the near future.
- Look at your use of anonymized audiences and whether they’re future-proofed in a data deprecation world. Location data brokers have long claimed that location data is anonymous because it’s not tied to personal information. In reality, location data is nearly impossible to anonymize — this is data that literally follows you home — and we’ve known for almost a decade that this is sensitive data. Don’t assume anonymization — or even pseudonymization — will safeguard you from regulatory fines or ethical harms.
More data is not necessarily better, and marketers need to think about the risk versus reward of collecting and using data. While data can shape your understanding of a customer and the customer experience, it can also be used to alienate or even criminalize — one example being identifying individuals seeking women’s healthcare services. Marketers can stay ahead of the data deprecation game by proactively easing reliance on third-party data, testing alternative targeting methods, and scaling back on hypertargeting.