The New York Times was able to track the precise movements of US president Donald Trump by combining leaked location data with publicly available information, the paper said, showing how smartphones can be used as a spying tool.
As part of its investigation the Times also tracked people in the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, military bases and the FBI’s headquarters, ascertaining their home addresses and names.
The paper used an anonymised data set of 50 billion location “pings” from the phones of more than 12 million people in the US related to their movements in 2016 and 2017.
The dataset was provided by anonymous whistleblowers concerned about the lack of regulations around location tracking.
The paper combined the data with publicly available information such as home addresses to quickly identify specific individuals, whose movements reporters were then able to track in real time.
In Trump’s case, reporters followed the president from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to two other golf clubs, where he played a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and back to Mar-a-Lago.
The tracked phone is thought to belong to one of the Secret Service agents in Trump’s entourage.
In one case, for instance, the paper found that a person who was frequently in the Pentagon also made visits to a mental-health and substance-use facility.
The Times also showed how tracking could easily divulge sensitive information on private individuals.
In one case it tracked a Microsoft engineer who made a visit to Microsoft competitor Amazon, and then, the following month, started a new job as a manager at Amazon.
The location data involved is collected from third-party smartphone apps that have integrated SDKs from location data firms such as Gimbal, NinthDecimal, Reveal Mobile, Skyhook, PlaceIQ and others – most of which are not well-known to most smartphone users.
“You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book,” the Times’ reporters wrote.
They said that due to lax regulation, the data in question can change hands in real time, and can be “resold, copied, pirated and abused”.
It noted the data it used was “just a small slice of what’s collected and sold every day by the location tracking industry – surveillance so omnipresent in our digital lives that it now seems impossible for anyone to avoid”.
The paper said its investigation – part of an ongoing series – is intended to express its “alarm” at the situation around tracking.
“Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinised – are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files,” the Times said in the report.
It noted that users can take steps to limit companies from tracking them by changing the location data settings in their smartphones.
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