Stalking is easy with Facebook, and now even easier with Snapchat

By EDRi · July 26, 2017

We seem to get more and more accustomed to using apps that can easily track our movements. It is convenient to simply share your location with friends, instead of sending messages or calling to arrange where to meet. But are you aware of when and how you are giving the companies an insight into our whereabouts, and with that, your life? Even though it is practically impossible to completely protect yourself from location tracking if you are using a smartphone, there are ways to avoid the most obvious and intrusive ones.

The most popular location-sharing tools are provided by Facebook, Google and now Snapchat. They all provide imperfect, but still efficient and widely used features for sharing your location, which bring about the privacy concerns of location tracking.

Two options apply to location sharing – the first one is to drop a pin on a map to share your current location, and the second one is to let others follow your location in real time as you move around. Apple, Facebook, Google and Snapchat all offer these options.

Apple’s locations sharing features are integrated into Apple Maps, Messages and Find my Friends apps. Google’s location sharing tool is built into Google maps and Facebook’s is embedded into its Messenger app. They all offer options for the time limit of your location sharing – it should come with no surprise that broadcasting a live update on your location indefinitely might not be the best thing to do, if you are even vaguely concerned about your privacy. Turning off the feature when you do not need to share your location any more is a basic precaution.

The latest app to join this location-sharing crowd is Snapchat. It might also be the most controversial one, to the point when even parents and law enforcement officials raised their concerns about strangers tracking children’s locations. Snap Map shares your location by placing your avatar – a cartoon figure called Bitmoji – on a map like a pin. Others can zoom in on it to get your specific location. Even if only your friends can access your location, it is fairly common to add people you do not actually know as friends on Snapchat. This raises concerns especially because the social platform is popular among teenagers, who might not be fully aware of privacy implications of the technology that broadcasts their location.

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Snap Map is technically an opt-in app, which only takes effect after you update the app and follow the tutorial on how to use the feature. The app asks who you want to see your location – if you choose option “only me”, it activates the so-called Ghost Mode, which makes your avatar disappear from the map, while you can still see others. This feature has been described as plain creepy.

Similar to many other apps, even if you opt out from announcing your location to the world, Snapchat can still track you of course. It might be a good idea to turn off location data altogether on your phone and just take a moment to actually tell your friends where you are when necessary. That way, the number of people, private companies, and government agencies, who are given a shortcut to monitor your movements and your activities, are at least somewhat limited. It is a simple choice between incurring the entirely unnecessary privacy and security risk of being in numerous databases, any of which might suffer a data breach at any time, or choosing not to run that risk.

Parents can make sure that children are not sharing their location with specific tools and with advice. For everyone else, not broadcasting your location publicly is always a wise choice when it comes to privacy.

(Contribution by Zarja Protner, EDRi intern)