Data Privacy Day 2019: Location Data & Survivor Safety

As we mark Data Privacy Day this year, data about all of us is increasingly collected, shared, and sold: our likes, our account activity, even our movements throughout the day. This is a concern for anyone who owns a mobile phone or uses the internet. But, for survivors of domestic violence, this erosion of privacy can be a risk to safety.

It is important to be clear about the line between consumer privacy risks that anyone might find concerning, and specific risks to the privacy and safety of survivors. Weak consumer privacy protections impact all of us, and yet they can become particularly dangerous for survivor privacy and safety, if exploited by abusers. At the same time, strengthening one can strengthen the other.

For example, location data gathered from the very technology that makes mobile phones work is for sale, as Motherboard revealed in a recent article. They report that cell phone companies, “are selling access to their customers' location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.”

The risk for survivors is that an unauthorized person like a private investigator could find a survivor’s location at the request of a client who is abusive. While we haven’t yet heard about a case where a survivor was located, those who work with survivors will wonder, “What can we do to support survivor safety?”

An option we often suggest in the safety planning process, is that a survivor can turn off location sharing in their apps and in their device settings. But in this case, location data is generated as the phone pings nearby cell towers, and this has to happen for the phone to receive calls and to use data – basically to work in the way a mobile phone works.

So, our usual advice to turn off location sharing in settings won’t help. Here are other options:

  • Consider leaving the phone behind when traveling to places you don’t want the abuser to know about, and carry a second phone that the abusive partner doesn’t know about

  • Turn off the phone or put it in airplane mode (where cell signal and WiFi are off)

  • Put the phone in a signal blocking bag or container.

  • Remember that the moment the phone connects back to the cell network in a new location, the location data will be tracked.

The big picture take away is that everyone has an interest in working for stronger data privacy protections – for general consumers, and even more so for survivor safety.

Phone location is not the only risk survivors face. Here are some additional resources to increase survivor privacy online and when using mobile devices: