We only have a week left in season one of Why'd You Push That Button?. So savor this episode. Really, soak it up. It's all you'll have to get through winter, other than our Holiday Spectacular episode next week.
This week, we're asking why you share your location. Do you share with your boyfriend? Does your mom make you do it? Maybe you've gotten lost in a park because your friend didn't know how to drop a pin and you wished they'd share their location. We get it. Our guests include a woman named Michelle Suconick who shares her location with her besties and her boyfriend; a mom who's also named Michelle and her son Alec; and Brian Feldman, an associate editor at Select All, who doesn't use location sharing for anything other than to lurk.
We then take all our good feelings over to Russell Brandom, a senior reporter at The Verge, who crushes our happy talk with the reality of a looming surveillance state. You can listen and read the transcript below, or find us anywhere else you find podcasts, including on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed.
Ashley Carman: So, we're back. Russell Brandom is here, senior reporter at The Verge. What's up, Russell?
Russell Brandom: Not much. Just hanging out.
Ashley: You do a lot of cybersecurity writing.
It's true, yeah.
Ashley: We figured you're the perfect person to talk to because you're going to make us scared.
Oh yeah. I mean, hopefully not too scared, just a low-level ... It's thriller. It's a thriller movie. It's not a horror movie.
Ashley: The title of this episode is "Why Do You Location Share?"
Ashley: I’m wondering if you could just give us some theories of why you think people location share.
I guess I would just start from the premise that you believe you're making these choices of your own free will, but in fact you're operating in a system that's been created by corporations to extract information out of you that can be used to target advertising.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: Okay!
Ashley: And you promised a thriller!
Kaitlyn: Zero to 60.
But that's basically what's happening from my perspective. I mean, so they're saying, "Look, if we know that Russell is in a Chipotle all the time, we can target burrito related ads to him and this will be more relevant to the burrito advertisers of the world than just some random guy who maybe doesn't like burritos and doesn't go to burrito restaurants. So how can we convince Russell to give us this information? We will make an app, which will allow him to say, 'Hey, I'm in Chipotle.' And maybe Chipotle will give him special deals for being the Mayor of the Financial District Chipotle." And then you have Foursquare and this was a good idea for a while, it's sort of fallen on hard times but that's basically the thing.
I think that's why Snapchat's interested in this, too. I think if location is generally a very valuable kind of information to target ads with.
Ashley: You're kind of hitting on this idea where we've talked to a bunch of users and they have their reasons. We have the mom and her son. The mom wants it because she feels secure knowing her son is home or whatever. We have someone who shares with their boyfriend. It saves us time, we don't have to text each other, I know he's at work, I don't have to bother him, type of thing.
Ashley: So from the user side we kind of understand those use cases, but you're hitting on the idea of why these apps keep getting developed. Because we keep seeing like you mentioned, Snapchat. Snap Maps is new and there's been plenty of ways to location share in the past. Find My Friends has existed for many years. But you still see companies introducing these location sharing features and you're kind of hitting on the idea of why this would be a lucrative field for them to get into.
Yeah, I mean this is like it's an information economy, right? And this is a valuable kind of information. So, the one interesting thing that people often don't realize is when you share your location in one of these ways, your phone is checking where you are through all of these signals in the background. GPS they can use but it takes a lot of power, so a lot of times it's like, what Wi-Fi outlets are nearby or like is there a Bluetooth beacon that we recognize.
Well the phone has that, so the operating system of the phone has that, which is probably either Apple or Google. Well, if it's Google, Google has a pretty good advertising business going. They use that to target ads. And you can see what the check-in is sort of on if you look at your Google account settings. But it's often pretty comprehensive and particularly for Android users, if you're checking Google maps and it gets a location pin, that counts as you having been in Chipotle.
Kaitlyn: Is this related to why people think that they're phone is listening to them talk?
Russell Brandom: So this is the thing, I think the real reason people think their phone is listening to them talk is just these companies have a ton of information about you. Because, did you do a Google search for that while you were logged in, probably at some point you did, do you do a Facebook search for that while you were logged in. It's every other piece of information that you consume is probably leaving a record of some kind. And the more of that information they can hoover up, the more money they make from targeted ads.
They're pretty good at it, it's literally everything else other than listening to you talk.
Kaitlyn: I have a theory, okay, because I know that I'm not being listened to when I talk but I feel like what you're talking about, the GPS, the location thing must be like more important than people even discuss. I, all the time, I don't know maybe Ashley can relate to this, constantly after I've been to a Duane Reade or a Walgreens, I get a lot of more of pregnancy tests ads —
Kaitlyn: — stuff in my Instagram, Lizzie and I once went into a grocery store and bought beer and then I got home and there was an ad for some really obscure beer that we saw there and she said out loud and I was like, "It's listening to us!" And then later I was like, maybe it just knows that I go to a grocery store that sells a lot of different kinds of beer.
Well, did you pay with a credit card?
Kaitlyn: Well we didn't buy the one that she said.
Oh, okay. But I'm saying ... All these things leave signals. I think the Walgreens thing specifically, that is a kind of ad buy that you can do, is say, "I would like to get this ad in front of people who I know have been at a pharmacy in the last 24 hours or the last six hours. If you can pin down that that happened then serve them this ad and I'll pay you this extra money." That's a very common and possible thing. I would also say, we don't think that Facebook is listening to you, just to be the paranoid guy, we don't absolutely know it's not happening.
Ashley: You absolutely know I will be the paranoid person on this podcast.
Kaitlyn: Oh my God.
Ashley: I'm sorry, I know that it's not cool to think that Facebook listens to you and it's like, you're the psycho.
Kaitlyn: Well, there's an episode of "Reply All" you can listen to about this.
Ashley: I don't know, I've had some very strange situations occur where I'm like, "This is impossible, this is impossible that this ad would be served to me." Impossible.
I feel like it would have come out by now. So I'm very dubious but also as a journalist, in fact, I do not for a fact know this isn't happening. So I never want to be too eager to dismiss something.
Ashley: Okay, so Russell, I assume you live a pretty secure life. You're very privacy conscious?
I don't know about that. I'm probably need to change my router password.
Ashley: Okay, well you told us a story about, sort of location sharing that you did.
Okay, so I realized actually I have been location sharing in a way that I wasn't thinking about because I use this app, Strava, that tracks — it's for runners and bikers and it gives a little thing on the map and there are certain sections and you can have the best time of that section or track how well you did going over the bridge and stuff. But the whole point is that there is a little line on the map of where you biked and it always starts at my house because I'm leaving the house and going to the thing. And I'm not gonna turn it on while I'm biking.
It's sort of one of these semi-private things. I want people to be able to find me because I want to have more friends on Strava, but also I don't want just anyone to be able to find me. But it's sort of unclear to me how far this travels. Anyone who could find it would know basically where I live. Especially anyone who's listening to this podcast.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, especially. Anybody who wanted to google Vox Media HQ, would know where you are right now.
Yeah, so it's weird. A lot of the things that you end up doing, reveal your location in ways that you don't think about. And then revealing your location kind of tells people a lot about you.
Ashley: Okay, so I have so many questions. Well one is, in that case you're concerned about privacy from strangers.
Yeah, specifically I'll write something mean about Android and a crazed Android fan will kill me. That's what ....
Kaitlyn: What? That's a real concern of yours?
Have you been on the Android forums for The Verge?
Ashley: Yeah, they get real mad. Real mad. Kaitlyn's not doing the tech blogging.
Kaitlyn: I'm happy to be sequestered over in the culture section.
Or like a crazed D.C. fan. They are a lot of fandoms that you worry about.
Kaitlyn: The only time I’ve touched on that is when I tweeted something about Sean Mendez.
Ashley: The teens went crazy.
Kaitlyn: It was brutal. I had 900 death threats in two days.
Ashley: Here's my other question.
Someone could look up my Strava and then lurk with a machete.
Ashley: Here's my other question —
Kaitlyn: Moving on from the machete.
Ashley: The yellow pages, the white Pages, whatever, I don't even know which one it is now.
Addresses are out there.
Ashley: Right, so it's like, are we just over hyping location sharing? Technically ...
Well, it's good to have fewer things. You can request a lot of the national online services to remove you from ... Like De-List Me.
Ashley: If you're willing to pay.
No, they have to, they're legally required. A lot times they ask you to pay and then someone sues them. They have to de-list you if you ask. They're fairly good lists of all of them and so if you're willing to spend an afternoon just writing into these but this does happen. We want to make the problem easier to solve not harder, and so having my Strava account makes the problem harder for me to solve. The question is do I get enough in return, is it valuable to me as a person? And that's a different answer for everyone.
Ashley: Is it valuable enough to you as a person?
I stopped using Strava so I kinda got the worst of both worlds. I don't log my rides but I logged in enough of them that the paper trail is out there, so.
Ashley: And they're profiting off your data?
Oh yeah. Well eventually I'll ... They can serve me bike ads too, I'm sure I'm getting fancy bike seats. Eventually I'll move, data eventually degrades, right, it becomes less valuable. So, I don't know, a lot of this stuff, it's very diffuse harms and very tangible benefits. Now Google maps is going to tell me where to go so I'll be on time for my appointment. And I don't have a clever answer for that, I'm not trying to be like, "Wake up sheeple. Stop sharing your location." It is, in fact, a nice thing. I wanted to meet someone in the park, where are you in the park?
Ashley: That's a common one that we get.
It's great that we have parks. We don't need to have addresses for everything. It's cool, do it. But try to not have the weird, yeah, I don't know. It's just different in every case.
Ashley: Yeah, it is.
Kaitlyn: This is an episode of the show, I think that we're ... A first time for us, we learned by the end, that what we considered a choice is actually not much of a choice at all.
Ashley: Well, active sharing is a choice.
Ashley: And Russell made the choice to stop using Strava.
Kaitlyn: That's true.
Sometimes the button pushes you.
Ashley: Well, Russell thank you so much for coming on. You always are a wealth of wisdom.
Russell Brandom: My pleasure.