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Life360 makes millions selling location data, and it’s about to buy Tile

Life360 makes millions selling location data, and it’s about to buy Tile

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CEO Chris Hulls says he’s heard few complaints about the model that subsidizes its free app experience

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An iPhone is in the center showing the Life360 app with locations of family members on a map. Surrounding the iPhone are images of trackable items by Tile and people and pets for Life360.
Life360’s marketing image of acquiring Tile is also a reminder of how much data it owns now
Image: Life360

Life360, the company that bills its product as a “family safety service,” has been selling location data on its 31 million customers — including kids — since 2016, The Markup reports.

Former employees from data broker companies told The Markup that Life360 is “one of the largest sources of data” for what has become a $12 billion phone location tracking industry. In November, the company announced it’s reached a deal to acquire the popular item tracking company Tile for $205 million and said it plans to pursue a dual public listing in the US (it’s currently listed on the Australian Securities Exchange) next year.

there are currently no plans to sell Tile’s data

“Our philosophy has been first ... be open with our users with what we are doing,” Hulls said, “and give them control.” The Life360 app defaults to consenting to sell user data and would need users to opt out within the app settings to prevent sharing of their personal data.

While announcing the acquisition, which will maintain Tile as an independent entity led by current CEO CJ Prober, Hulls described plans for the companies to connect Tile accounts to the Life360 app. During our conversation, he said that the APIs could allow customers to combine all family members (including pets, via another recent acquisition, Jiobit) and their stuff in one interface.

According to The Markup, Life360 generated almost $700,000 from selling location data in 2016. This would later become a more integral revenue stream for the company. In a conversation with The Verge, CEO Chris Hulls confirmed it brought in about $16 million in 2020, even as the company reported an overall loss of $16.3 million last year.

A Tile representative responded to questions from The Verge about how the deal potentially affects data from its Bluetooth (and, eventually, ultra wideband) trackers: “Tile does not sell/monetize personal data and we have Life360’s full support and commitment to continue that.” Hulls told The Markup there are currently no plans to sell Tile’s data.

Companies in the location data industry like Cuebiq, X-Mode, SafeGraph, and Allstate’s Arity all pay for access to Life360’s customer tracking. A former Cuebiq employee quoted in the report “joked” that their former employer would not be able to operate its marketing campaign without Life360 data. A former X-Mode employee said Life360 had the “most valuable offerings due to the sheer volume and precision” compared to other sources of data.

The Markup asked Hulls about the claim that his company is the largest hub for the phone location tracking industry; he responded with the following message:

We have no means to confirm or deny the accuracy of that statement. However, the vast majority of mobile applications - including some which are many times larger than Life360 - collect, use, and share data in various ways. Our level of participation in the ecosystem is likely commensurate with the size of our user base. As The Markup itself has reported, there are almost two billion devices that are connected to the mobile phone location data market. Based on this data, at maximum, with approximately 30 million active users, we account for a very small portion of the overall market. Similarly, from a revenue perspective, we are almost certainly one of the smaller companies involved in the broader industry as the market is estimated to be over $10 billion and we generate approximately $20 million.

Hulls also told The Markup that Life360 does not share information with government entities — but once the data is purchased, “We cannot comment on the practices of another company or what that company does with data it receives from other sources.”

Hulls continued in the email response to The Markup saying Life360 prohibits tracing back information to individual customers in its contracts with data purchasers. Hulls says he is also not aware of any instance where a customer was re-identified, stating Life360 follows privacy practices that are “industry best.”

“[Data brokers] depend on people not understanding where things are coming from, where they’re going, where they’re actually getting their data”

The Verge also spoke to Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) staff technologist Bennett Cyphers, who pointed out that very few apps disclose what companies they’re actually sharing data with because they’re not legally required to do so. It’s not only that the apps aren’t telling users where their data is going, and the companies that pass the data on refuse to tell their customers how it was obtained. As he put it, “Especially the ones [data brokers] that deal in location data, they consider the apps that they collect data from to be trade secrets, and they won’t reveal that to anyone, in response to anything.”

Based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on situations where the government has obtained location data from a broker, in every case the EFF has seen, the government has no idea where the data is coming from. “Secrecy is these companies bread and butter, they cannot exist out in the sunlight. They depend on people not understanding where things are coming from, where they’re going, where they’re actually getting their data,” says Cypher about the information brokers.

Life360’s full privacy policy states:

We may share your personal information, including your precise location data, driving sensor data, unique identifiers or AD IDs and other data with our partners, such as Cuebiq and its Partners, for their marketing and business purposes, including without limitation, to inform and improve tailored advertising, attribution, analytics or research purposes.

When I spoke to Hulls, he said there’s a list of companies that can purchase data from Life360 and that directly identifiable info — such as names and emails — is stripped out. This data is then put on a server that allows permissible companies to further process it and then distribute it to other parties. “No one can just buy someones’ random data,” Hulls said. Life360 also keeps a blog on its site where it states about 90 percent of its customers are using the “free application experience” and explains how some services are kept free by subsidizing revenues from location and ad data sales.

“if we found that the average user had a problem with it, we would re-evaluate”

Hulls feels that Life360 providing precise location data equates to the workings of targeted ads and how the industry as a whole, down to media sites like The Verge, is doing this. An example he gave was the New York Times’ COVID-19 dashboard using “aggregated phone exhaust data.” Hulls is confident that the services Life360 provides in exchange for data are valuable and compared his company to Credit Karma. From his perspective, “They take what’s pretty personal information, they’ve established trust that’s okay, they take your social, your billing, whatever, they give you credit card offers ... we want to do the same with insurance in a very transparent way.”

In response to the anonymization of location data, Cyphers pointed out that anonymization is a “meaningless buzzword” in terms of location privacy, where simply slapping a device ID on information isn’t enough to separate it from a real person. The phone that stays where you sleep at night, then follows you to your workplace in the morning, and spends weekends at the places you hang out, is unlikely to belong to anyone else.

In comparison to services like Credit Karma or insurers that have launched tracking apps or devices, Cyphers pointed out that people join Credit Karma frequently with the “sole intent” of finding a credit card or loan. Signing up for a family safety app, they may not be aware of how much money is changing hands, how much data is being collected, and how those goals could be misaligned.

We asked Hulls if he thinks Life360 has competitors that have not been similarly scrutinized: “I’m not here to call anyone out but am highlighting that the positioning of us as some giant shadow player is simply wrong,” he wrote in an email response. Hulls also says he believes customers are not worried, and that “if we found that the average user had a problem with it, we would re-evaluate, but we haven’t had users complain about it in any meaningful sense.” In a follow-up email asking if users have reported they were unaware of how their data is used and shared, he says, “Less than .1 percent of our inbound customer support emails mention data whatsoever, and most of the ones that come in ask technical questions about our opt-out.”

Hulls did say there is “theoretically” enough data available in what Life360 sells to identify individuals, but that to the company’s knowledge it has never happened. He cited the belief that companies would casually break their contract and break the law as possible, theoretically, but frustrating to him as an idea because he thinks “it’s a pretty big step that most reputable companies are not going to do.” We asked what would happen if contracted purchasers like X-Mode are confirmed to have sold data identifiable data to the government, and while Hulls would not confirm active investigations, he says it would sue partner companies that breach the contract.

The Markup’s report on the location data industry helps paint the picture of how the demand for user data is seen as an opportunity by companies like Life360. Hulls stated to The Markup that selling location data is “an important part of our business model that allows us to keep the core Life360 services free” — citing that its features have “improved driver safety and saved numerous lives.”

While Life360 is a safety company selling peace of mind and perhaps a better offer on your insurance, it’s also like many other companies (Google, Facebook, Roku, and Vizio come to mind) where mining the data generated by users could ultimately be more valuable.

Though both the company and Tile delivered statements that there are no current plans to sell Tile tracker data, real-time location information is sensitive enough that simply trusting anyone to keep it out of the wrong hands is a hard sell. Even with the ability to opt out after registering, rushed decisions to get through the signup process fast could determine who actually owns your information.

Update December 9th, 4:35PM ET: Hulls requested to share his full email response to The Markup, which is now included.

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