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Does a Public Email Track User's Locations? | Email Privacy

August 22, 2018
PRIVACY AND FREEDOM

Privacy and User Tracking

Privacy has long been at the center of debate around search engine's user tracking, and new research sheds light on just how extensive—and intrusive—the practice is.

A recent AP report knocked down the common myth that turning off Location History while browsing the Internet will protect users’ location from being tracked. Even with that feature disabled, search engines continue to track locations through their map application or certain weather apps, as well as even simple searches that have nothing to do with location. The practice affects both iPhone and certain Android users and is estimated to be impacting a staggering 2 billion people.

While there are ways to make your browsing more secure—such as through modifying your Web & App Activity settings on your search engine account—that users should even have to jump through these added hoops is setting off lots of red flags for privacy experts. In an interview with Wired, Electronic Privacy Information Center senior counsel Alan Butler said a long-held assertion that disabling Location History will do the trick—when in fact, it won’t—“seems like textbook deception.”

Internet users are guaranteed a level of protection against deceptive privacy practices through a series of consumer-protection statutes overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, which EPIC has since urged to investigate several search engines,  in light of the recent news. The idea that these company's tracking practices are deceptive gained even more steam after the AP report, when the company's edited the description on their website for how it treats Location History to note that some locations may still be saved and stored; previously, the description stated that “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That this was not made clear to users before the recent negative press suggests active deception, a violation of the FTC statutes as well as a 2011 settlement with EPIC. In that agreement, one of the companies stipulated that it would not misrepresent how it collects user information, nor how users can control the collection of their data.

The practice may also be in direct violation of basic constitutional rights. While case law is still developing around digital-privacy issues, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First, Third, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution to grant privacy protections, with arguments that many suggest can be interpreted as extending to modern issues like digital privacy. The right to privacy is even more explicit in many state constitutions and statutes; in light of the scandal, a California man is taking a stand with a federal lawsuit that contends the tracking practice violates his state constitutional rights.

With social media tech giants increasingly coming under scrutiny for how they collect and store information about users, the revelation about these tracking practices shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, it should be cause for concern and action among those who value privacy, especially when it comes to email. Using a private, conservative email provider could make a difference when it comes to keeping your personal information safe.

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