To do this, they tapped a company called SafeGraph that provided them with 17 trillion location markers for 10 million smartphones. The data wasn’t just staggering in sheer quantity. It also appears to be extremely granular. Researchers “used this data to identify individuals’ home locations, which they defined as the places people were most often located between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m.,” wrote The Washington Post. [….] This means SafeGraph is looking at an individual device and tracking where its owner is going throughout their day. A common defense from companies that creepily collect massive amounts of data is that the data is only analyzed in aggregate; for example, Google’s database BigQuery, which allows organizations to upload big data sets and then query them quickly, promises that all its public data sets are “fully anonymized” and “contain no personally-identifying information.” In multiple press releases from SafeGraph’s partners, the company’s location data is referred to as “anonymized,” but in this case they seem to be interpreting the concept of anonymity quite liberally given the specificity of the data. Most people probably don’t realize that their Thanksgiving habits could end up being scrutinized by strangers. It’s unclear if users realize that their data is being used this way, but all signs point to no. (SafeGraph and the researchers did not immediately respond to questions.) SafeGraph gets location data from “from numerous smartphone apps,” according to the researchers.
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