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Mobile App Stores and the Power of Incentives

Kyle Rankin, Purism:

Recently I was reading an article on Vox by Sara Morrison that explained how some of the hidden trackers in modern smartphones work and how they are used to capture and sell your data. This article was written in the context of the growing awareness of location data tracking in smartphones as that data has been used to map COVID-19 responses by the public:

In the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic, an animated map from a company called Tectonix went viral. It showed spring breakers leaving a Florida beach to return to their homes across the US, as a series of tiny orange dots congregating on a beach in early March scattered across the country over the following two weeks.

“It becomes clear just how massive the potential impact of just one single beach gathering can have in spreading this virus across our nation,” the video’s narrator said. “The data tells the stories we just can’t see.”

But there was another story there that most of us can’t see: how trackers hidden in smartphone apps are the source of incredible amounts of specific data about us, much of which gets sent to companies you’ve never heard of. This has been going on for years and is an essential part of the mobile app economy. But it took the Covid-19 pandemic to bring some of these companies, and what they’re capable of, to the forefront.

The whole article is a fascinating read and I recommend checking it out, but I wanted to spend some time in this article talking about a sentence that jumped out at me in the above quote:

This has been going on for years and is an essential part of the mobile app economy.

The hidden trackers in your phone, explained | Sara Morrison, Vox

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