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In the digital age, QR codes are ubiquitous. Everywhere you look, from billboards to business cards, it seems as if there is an endless stream of these black-and-white patterns that promise to deliver additional information with just the scan of a single smartphone camera. But how do these QR codes impact our data privacy? What happens when we use them without considering the implications?

As more of us embrace this technology, it’s important to understand how QR codes can affect our personal data and whether they offer a secure solution for exchanging sensitive information. In this blog post, we’ll explore how QR codes can affect your data privacy so that you can make informed decisions about their use.

What Is a QR Code and How Does It Work?

A Quick Response (QR) code is a two-dimensional barcode containing up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters. When scanned by a smartphone or tablet camera, the information stored in the code is decoded, and the user can access its content. This technology has been around since 1994, but only recently has it become an increasingly popular way of quickly sharing information. According to the QR code study, the percentage of QR code scans has increased by 26 percent in the last two years, showing how more people are embracing this technology.

QR codes work by encoding information within a pattern. When the code is scanned, the user can access its contents without having to manually type in a URL or search for it online. This makes it an incredibly convenient and efficient way of sharing data with others but also raises some important privacy concerns.

What Data Can Be Stored in a QR Code?

QR codes can store a variety of data, from text to website links, videos, and images. Any information encoded digitally can be stored in a QR code, allowing for the quick and easy exchange of sensitive data between users.

However, this convenience comes with risks. Unlike other data transmission methods, such as email or SMS, it can be difficult to tell where the data is being sent and who can access it. This lack of transparency makes it hard to verify that your information is secure and protected from unauthorized access.

It’s also important to note that most QR codes are static – meaning they don’t update automatically when the content changes – so if you’re using QR codes to share sensitive information like passwords, it’s important to double-check that the code contains the latest version.

How Do QR Codes Impact Our Data Privacy?

QR codes can impact data privacy by exposing our personal information to security threats. When using these codes to transfer information, it’s important to consider the potential risks and understand how to protect your data. By knowing the potential risks, you can safely scan the QR code without any doubts.

1. Potential for Data Collection and Tracking

2. Potential for Data Breaches

QR codes can potentially be vulnerable to data breaches as there is no way for users to know who has access to the information stored in them. Additionally, if a QR code isn’t updated regularly with new or updated information, it could give hackers access to old or out-of-date data that could be used maliciously.

3. Potential for Malware Attacks

Hackers can also use QR codes to spread malicious code or malware. For example, they can create a QR code that links to a website that contains malware, and when the code is scanned, the malware is downloaded onto the user’s device. This type of attack can be difficult to detect as malicious QR codes often look just like regular ones.

4. Potential for Phishing Attacks

QR codes can be used to deceive users into sharing sensitive information with malicious actors. In a phishing attack, hackers create fake QR codes that link to sites that look like legitimate ones but are actually run by attackers.

When users scan these codes, they may unknowingly disclose personal information, such as passwords or banking details, to attackers. This attack is particularly hazardous because users are usually unaware that they are revealing sensitive information to malicious individuals.

How to Protect Your Data from QR Code Risks

As mentioned above, QR codes can be risky when it comes to data privacy. To ensure your data remains secure, you should take the following steps.

1. Only Scan Verified QR Codes

Whenever you scan a QR code, make sure it is from a trusted source. Do not scan any codes that are suspicious or appear to have been altered in any way. Additionally, check the website or app before scanning to make sure it is legitimate and secure.

2. Enable Two-Factor Authentication

It’s essential to prioritize the safety of your data, and implementing two-factor authentication is an efficient method to achieve this. Once activated, you’ll have to provide an additional code or password before accessing any data related to a QR code. This extra security measure can help prevent harmful activities like phishing attacks.

3. Use HTTPS Encryption

Whenever possible, use HTTPS encryption when scanning QR codes. This type of encryption helps protect data being sent through the code, making it difficult for third parties to intercept and access your information.

4. Use Genuine QR Code Scanner Apps

Always use genuine QR code scanner apps from reputable companies, as some malicious scanners may contain malware or spyware. When downloading an app, make sure to check the reviews and read through the privacy policy before installing it on your device.

It’s vital to keep your device updated with the latest security patches to lower the risk of malware attacks and other security threats. Apart from that, it’s also recommended to have antivirus software installed to safeguard against potential malicious codes hidden in QR codes.

FAQs

Are QR codes safe?

QR codes can be safe if you take precautions to reduce the risks associated with them. This includes verifying that the code links to a reputable website, enabling two-factor authentication, and using HTTPS encryption when scanning the code. Additionally, make sure to never scan suspicious or altered codes and use genuine QR code scanner apps from trusted companies.

How QR code can be misused?

QR codes have the potential to be misused in a number of ways. This includes malicious actors creating fake QR codes that link to sites that look like legitimate ones but are actually run by attackers. Additionally, hackers may use QR codes to install malware or spyware on users’ devices.

Summing Up

Overall, QR codes provide a convenient way to quickly transfer data, but they also carry potential risks. To protect your privacy, it’s essential to know the potential risks associated with using QR codes and take steps to minimize them.

This includes being vigilant when scanning QR codes and verifying that the code is linking to a legitimate website. Doing so can help ensure that your data remains safe and secure.

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How Qr Codes And Social Media Marketing Can Work Together

Social media users want access to relevant information immediately, which QR codes can help provide

QR codes, short for Quick Response, have really taken off in the last few years, with many social media giants jumping onto the bandwagon as well.

In today’s fast-paced world, social media users want instant gratification. They want access to relevant information immediately. QR codes can make that happen!

The amount of QR codes redeemed is set to grow from 1.3 billion in 2023 to 5.3 billion by 2023. You’re probably used to seeing QR codes all around you: on receipts, restaurant menus, discount coupons, mobile apps and pretty much everywhere you go. It’s no secret that they’ve taken the digital world by storm.

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However, what most people fail to realize is how these small symmetrical codes have such a huge impact. They are a simple way of directing you exactly where companies want you to go, seeing what they want and taking actions that are in their best interest.

One such use of QR codes, often not very discernible, is its impact on social media and how it is gradually changing the social media marketing landscape.

How do QR codes work?

A QR code is very similar to a barcode in that they both contain relevant information that is accessed only by scanning them. QR codes are made of small black squares and dots. Each of these shapes represents certain information that is machine-readable.

A QR code reading application coupled with a smartphone’s camera translates the code into understandable information. These applications are available online and compatible with both Android and iOS devices and are usually free of charge.

What you see after scanning the code is not some information in a paragraph or anything of that sort. Instead, you will usually find actionable information.

Actionable information is meaningful data to help you make a decision or perform a relevant action. This type of information can be anything from directing users to a web page to receiving a text message.

User convenience: They are easy-to-use, and only require a one-step process to get things done.

Environmentally friendly: QR codes take up less space on printed materials, thereby, they reduce paper waste.

Cost-effective: Production of QR codes costs next to nothing and you can use them limitlessly.

Easily measurable: Actions completed as a result of QR codes are more easily traceable and measurable as compared to other marketing strategies.

QR Codes and Social Media Marketing

If you’re looking to grow your social media marketing, an effective tool is to use QR codes in your campaigns. It offers several benefits and can be done in a myriad of ways.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways how QR codes and social media marketing go hand in hand:

1. To increase engagement

Marketing is all about engagement – creating content that readers can engage with. Social media marketing is no different.

But the question remains! How do QR codes fit into all these tactics? The answer is simple – with QR codes, you can ensure that users land exactly where you want them to and take actions that help improve engagement.

Let’s say, your aim is to drive up the number of likes on your Facebook content. You can do that by simply creating a QR code that is linked to a fully functioning ‘like’ button on your Facebook page.

It simplifies the process for the readers. They don’t have to go find your page first and then hit the like button.

By simply scanning the code, they are taken directly where they need to be. It also expedites the entire process, and we all know that time is money.

Using QR codes in a similar manner, you can easily generate greater social media engagement. All you need to do is add a relevant QR code to your printed materials, on your storefronts, even in email messages.

It’s a simple yet effective way of directing traffic to your social media and ensuring that they engage with your content.

2. To create awareness

Back in 2024, Snapchat introduced QR codes under the name of “Snapcodes”. This feature basically lets users scan the codes to view social media profiles of others. Users can also generate their own QR based Snapcodes so others can easily follow them using them.

Many celebrities, social media influencers and brands were quick to use this feature to create and increase awareness about themselves. Michelle Obama, Miley Cyrus, and Kim Kardashian were just some out of the long list of celebrities to do so.

There was a time when you would find your Snapchat overflowing with stories of users’ Snapcodes, as everyone tried their best to gain social media awareness.

As if that wasn’t enough, Snapchat later expanded the Snapcodes, so that they could be linked to websites as well. This feature was, and to date still is, a creative way for companies to create awareness online.

Using Snapcodes, companies can reach a greater audience. Moreover, as discussed above, simply scanning codes makes it easier and quicker for users to take action. This simplicity and user-friendliness can, in turn, result in lower bounce rates for your company’s website.

If Snapchat isn’t the right medium for you, consider Instagram. Instagram launched a similar QR code scanning feature in 2023, under the name of Nametags. You can add Nametags to your Instagram stories to make it easier for users to follow you.

Or you can add these codes on your printed materials, from store window displays to receipts. This way, you can create awareness about your brand much quicker.

3. For competitive differentiation

QR codes aren’t something widely used by companies for their social media marketing yet. Therefore, if you use QR codes for your marketing, they can help as a way to differentiate your company from others.

If you start to incorporate these codes into your marketing campaigns, you are sure to set yourself apart as a strategic marketing leader.

Take a look at how Verizon carried out its social media marketing campaign using QR codes! This huge telecommunication company used QR codes to direct and engage users with their Facebook page.

How they did that? Verizon had QR codes printed in their stores. In-store users could scan the QR code. This would share a post to the user’s Facebook profile with information about them having entered an online competition.

You too can benefit from the use of QR codes in your social media marketing campaigns. It will stir excitement among your customers, help set you apart from your competitors and ensure that your marketing campaign is not easily forgotten.

Spruce up your social media marketing with smart QR codes

If your social media marketing campaign hasn’t been producing great results so far, now would be the right time for you to introduce QR codes into the mix.

With their large number of benefits, QR codes are a surefire way to help increase your brand awareness and social media engagement. Adding to this, you can even enjoy the fact that you’re a class apart from all others who still haven’t realized the awesomeness of QR codes.

6 Steps To Protect Student Data Privacy

Many apps used in schools compromise student data. Here’s one way schools and districts can develop a comprehensive plan to keep that information safe.

Many school districts have seen an explosion in the number of apps and websites that teachers use with students in classrooms. Although digital tools can enhance learning, the expansion in technology has resulted in an increased number of cyber attacks and privacy breaches. Districts have the power and responsibility to promote student safety by ensuring the protection of student data privacy. 

According to the Student Privacy Primer from the Student Privacy Compass, “Student data privacy refers to the responsible, ethical, and equitable collection, use, sharing, and protection of student data.” This data includes personally identifiable information such as a student’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, and email address. 

Although there are certainly edtech companies that perform due diligence when it comes to protecting data, others do not use best practices. A recent report from the nonprofit Internet Safety Labs found that 96 percent of apps used regularly in K–12 schools have data-sharing practices that “are not adequately safe for children.”

Many of those apps shared children’s personal information with third-party marketers, often without the knowledge or consent of schools. There have also been some recent instances of edtech company data breaches that have shown those companies are not taking the safety precautions they claim to be taking, such as encrypting student information. It is imperative that districts take steps to protect student information. 

6 steps to build a culture of student data privacy

1. Identify a point person. As districts begin to think about student privacy, the first step is to identify someone who can become the primary contact on student data privacy questions and decisions. This might be someone at the district office level (such as a director of technology or tech coach), or it might be someone at the school level (such as an assistant principal or instructional coach). This person can also provide teachers with guidance and best practices.

2. Develop a communication strategy. It is essential to create a plan that effectively communicates the district’s data privacy policies and procedures to all stakeholders (for instance, educators, parents, and students). Clearly communicating the plan at each step of the process will help build the relationships necessary to create an environment in which student data privacy is prioritized. If you need help getting started, check out the Student Privacy Communications Toolkit from the Student Privacy Compass.

3. Identify websites and apps being used in the district. Start with the apps that your district is paying for or encouraging teachers to use. Reach out to curriculum specialists, coaches, and anyone else that regularly provides professional development to teachers. I recommend starting with a small batch (10–20) of the most commonly used apps as you first start to develop procedures. Later, as you fine-tune your approval process, you might decide to utilize outside services to identify additional apps that are being used in the classroom. 

For example, our district uses GoGuardian, which operates as an extension on student Chromebooks and monitors their browsing activity. The GoGuardian Director Overview dashboard shows us which apps, extensions, and websites are being used the most by our students. Another tool you can use is the LearnPlatform Inventory Dashboard. This is a browser extension pushed out to district devices that populates a dashboard showing all the edtech tools that teachers and students in your district are using.

4. Develop an understanding of pertinent laws and regulations. To effectively address student data privacy, the technology point person will need to be familiar with related legal requirements. One important federal law is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires schools to protect the privacy of student education records. 

Another federal law that applies here is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA requires operators of commercial websites and online services to obtain consent from parents before collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. While this rule applies to companies, not schools, it is still important to understand because schools can give consent on a parent’s behalf.

Depending on your state, you might also need to do some research about state laws that govern data privacy; plenty of resources exist to help you get started with FERPA, COPPA, and additional state laws.

5. Vet apps for compliance with laws and data privacy. Each app should go through a standardized vetting procedure. I would strongly recommend putting a team together to perform this vetting so that you get diverse perspectives and input from a variety of stakeholders. 

Two things you will want to look at closely for each app will be the Terms of Service (TOS) and the Privacy Policy. Some pieces of information you will want to look for are the kind of data they are collecting and how they are securing that data.

Reviewing the TOS and Privacy Policies can feel overwhelming, especially when you are first getting started. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance to help with this evaluation process.

Another helpful (and free) resource is the Common Sense Privacy Program. Common Sense evaluates the privacy policies of individual apps and scores them in 10 different areas, including Data Collection, Data Sharing, and Data Security.

6. Create a list of approved apps to share with teachers. An important part of creating a culture of student data privacy is getting teachers on board, as they are the people making daily decisions about which apps to use with their students. One way you can help them make safe choices is to create a list of approved apps that have been vetted by a person (or group of people) trained to read through Privacy Policies and Terms of Service notices. With so many apps out there to choose from, teachers often have a choice between two that do similar things. A list can help them choose the app that does a better job of protecting data while still allowing them to use technology to enhance learning for students.

For teachers who would like to learn more about student data privacy, provide some resources. Here are two free training courses:

Creating a culture of student data privacy is challenging, but it is worth the effort to protect our students. Remember that you don’t have to do everything all at once. Take that first step and be a privacy leader!

Do Domain Extensions Impact Seo? Here’s What We Know

In the ever-evolving world of search engine optimization (SEO), various factors come into play to determine a website’s visibility and ranking on search engine result pages (SERPs). One such factor that has long sparked debates and discussions is the impact of domain extensions.

Such conjectures have since created massive gold-rushes for certain domain extensions, and significant gluts across a few others, but is there any truth to them?

In this article, we will delve deep into the topic and explore what we know about the impact of domain extensions on SEO, and its long-term implications on blogs and websites.

The Relevance of Domain Extensions

Domain extensions give visitors a hint about a website’s purpose or niche. For instance, .gov is commonly associated with government entities, .edu with educational institutions, and .org with non-profit organizations.

From a user’s perspective, such extensions can influence trust and credibility. However, from an SEO standpoint, extensions have a minimal direct impact on ranking algorithms.

Google’s Perspective

Google, the world’s foremost search engine, has stated that they do not consider domain extensions as a ranking factor.

Their algorithms focus on other aspects, such as quality content, relevant keywords, user experience, and backlinks. Google’s primary goal is to provide users with the most relevant and useful search results, regardless of a website’s extension.

Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)

Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are extensions assigned to specific countries or territories. Examples include .uk for the United Kingdom, .de for Germany, and .br for Brazil.

ccTLDs are often used by businesses or websites that target specific geographical regions.

They can influence local SEO by indicating the website’s relevance to a particular country or region.

New Generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs)

In recent years, domain extension has been significantly expanded by introducing new generic top-level domains (gTLDs).

These include extensions such as .technology, .blog, .store, etc. While gTLDs offer more flexibility and creativity in domain name choices, their impact on SEO must be improved. Google treats gTLDs similar to traditional domain extensions, focusing primarily on content and relevance.

Other Vanity Domains

One domain extension that has gained popularity among tech startups and technology-related businesses in recent years is .io.

Originally assigned to the British Indian Ocean Territory, .io has been embraced by the tech community as it can be interpreted as “input/output” or “Internet organization.” .io Domains for your website is among a long list of vanity domain names, such as the .Pro or .Me that has taken the internet by storm in recent years.

While they don’t have any direct impact on SEO by themselves, extensions such as the .io have been used by leading startups across the globe, who often post high-quality content, so by mere association alone such extensions can add value, often in the form of high CTRs, or better perceptions.

Geographic Considerations

Search engines often prioritize local results for relevant queries, so having a country-specific domain extension can improve visibility in local searches. However, it’s important to note that the impact of geographic domain extensions on SEO is relatively minor compared to other SEO factors.

Domain Authority & Backlinks

Domain authority, a metric developed by Moz, measures a website’s overall strength and credibility. Various factors, including the quality and quantity of backlinks, influence it. Some argue that certain domain extensions, such as “.edu” or “.gov,” may be perceived as more authoritative, given the trust associated with institutions that use these extensions.

As a result, these extensions tend to receive higher CTRs in search results, which definitely is a ranking factor worthy of consideration. This also explains why, for years, SEOs have strived to acquire backlinks from the above-mentioned domains, all due to their perceived authority.

Incidences of Spam

While Google has completely sworn off this debate pertaining to domain extensions, there is definitely some truth to this, especially when it comes to the big picture.

Its affordability has also meant that marketers and SEOs can create multiple .info sites, often with no intention of adding value to readers, with their sole purpose being sending wrong signals to search engines.

Factors That Truly Impact SEO

While domain extensions may have a minor influence on SEO, focusing on factors that play a more significant role in search engine rankings is crucial. These include:

Content Quality: Creating valuable, informative, and engaging content that meets the needs of your target audience is paramount.

Relevant Keywords: Conducting thorough keyword research and incorporating relevant keywords naturally into your website’s content can improve its visibility on SERPs.

Backlinks: Earning high-quality backlinks from authoritative websites within your industry can enhance your website’s authority and search engine rankings.

Mobile Optimization: With the increasing use of mobile devices for browsing, having a mobile-friendly website is essential for SEO success.

Social Signals: Retweets, upvotes, shares, and more on social media sites are considered strong signals for search engines regarding the quality and authority of a webpage.

Conclusion

While domain extensions can influence user perception and potentially impact SEO indirectly, their direct effect on search rankings is minimal.

Internet Of Things (Iot) And Its Impact On Data Science!

Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen, in their book “The New Digital Age” describe typical future morning for a professional like this:

There will be no alarm in your wake-up routine – at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, you’ll be roused by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, by light entering your room as curtains open automatically, and by a gentle massage administered by your high-tech bed. You’re most likely to awake refreshed, because inside your mattress there’s a special sensor that monitors your sleeping rhythms, determining precisely when to wake so as not to interrupt a REM cycle.

A little later:

There’s a bit of time left before you need to leave for work – which you’ll get to by driverless car, of course. Your car knows what time you need to be in the office each moring based on your calendar and, after factoring in traffic data, it communicates with your wristwatch to give you a sixty-minute countdown to when you need to leave the house.

How does this world look? Futuristic? Or do you think we are pretty close to this future? I think we are some where is the middle – our world should look like this in 5 – 8 years from now! All thanks to “Internet of things” or “Web of things”, whatever you call it.

What is Internet of Things (IoT)?

Internet of things refers to network of objects, each of which has an unique IP address & can connect to internet. These objects can be people, animal and day to day devices like your refrigerator and your coffee machine. These objects can connect to internet (and to each other) and communicate with each other through this net, in ways which have not been thought before.

Imagine a world when every small thing in your home is connected to internet and is speaking to each other – the coffee maker, refrigerator, doors, heating units, your watering system, your weighing scale, your car, mobile phone, watch, TV, your wardrobe, your house cleaning machines, everything on a single network and all interacting and communicating with each other.

If this sounds like a scene from the movie Transformers – its not! It is much closer to reality than you would think.

What can these devices do?

There is no rule which defines what these devices can or can not do. So, it is pretty much open to the imagination of the designers and manufacturers. However, here are a few obvious things, which come to my mind:

These devices would interact and communicate – to humans or to other machines, as appropriate.

These devices would have sensors to capture data – it could be your heart beat, your temperature or the traffic in front of the car.

These devices would be able to compute. Driverless cars would do the route planning and collission avoidance all by themselves.

Storage of data

These would have embedded controllers to switch things on and off.

Why is it gaining significance?

Here is how Google search for Internet of things trends in comparison to Big Data. It already has about one-thirds of searches in comparison to Big Data.

So, why is this being searched? I think the best way to answer this is to illustrate a few scenarios and possibilities enabled by this internet of things.

Examples of consumer applications:

As you approach the door of your home, it senses your presence and automatically unlocks itself. As soon as you close it to go out of home, it asks all the energy units in the house – lighting, heater, stove, refrigerator to go into energy preservation mode. When you come back, the reverse happens.

Your wrist band senses when you fall asleep and automatically asks your headphones and lights in your room to switch off.

The sensors in the soil of your garden gauge the level of moisture in soil and accordingly switch the watering unit – efficient watering of plants!

Health care – Imagine your watch is monitoring your heart rate regularly and notifies you at the first instance of any irregularity. It can also shoot a message to your doctor and near by hospital.

Industrial applications:

Life of machines – Imagine a train and its track loaded with sensors, which continually monitor their wear and tear. Even before the train hits its destination, you would know the repairs and the changes required. Similarly, you do not depend on the generic guidelines about the life of tracks to replace them. The concept applies to aircraft engines, wind turbines or any heavy machinery you can think of.

I am sure, you get the idea. Basically, Internet of Things (IoT) is set to change how we work and interact with the world in every possible manner.

Hype cycle of Internet of Things:

Hype cycle is a typical representation on how technologies evolve over time. They typically go through Innovation trigger followed by inflation of expectations, trough of disillusionment, enlightenment and finally hitting plateau of productivity. This is the time, when a technology has lived it’s life cycle!

Here is the hype cycle of various technologies in July 2014, as per Gartner:

As you can see, there are various manifestations of Internet of things, which are 5 – 10 years from the eventual plateau. For example – Connected Home, Wearable user interfaces, machine to machine communication services.

What does it mean for data science professionals?

If you are not scratching your head already, have a look at this graph. This is how the data generated through internet of things is expected to explode (at whopping 66% CAGR):

So, Cisco expects the data emitted by all mobile devices to grow 4 times in 3 years! Now, imagine the opportunities it opens up for data science professionals. Here are a few of them, which come to my mind:

First and foremost, we will need better and more agile infrastructure – the big data of today would become small data of tomorrow.

In simple words, with this explosion in data, we will need more people who can handle this data and make more sense of it.

What are the challenges in realizing Internet of things?

While the picture I painted is definitely rosy, there are a few significant challenges to overcome before we reach there.

The first question to solve for is how do you get machines from different manufacturers to talk to each other? How do they communicate sensitive customer data across to each other. Who owns the data? Who can use the data? How?

Communication regimes and design requirements: While the applications are immense, so are the scenarios to use these machines. Each scenario requires a different style of communication – different latency, different frequency, different length of data. For example, a sensor measuring temperature of human body needs to communicate the data once in a while. The driverless cars need to be on their toes every single second!

Customer Privacy: The proponents of customer privacy would be shouting on top of their voices by now. Internet of things will expose whatever privacy is left today to be exposed – both at personal and industrial levels.

Information Security: Each of these devices would have their own security challenges. Our PCs, Laptops and mobiles, even after years of efforts still have security challenges. With more devices coming on the internet, this challenge now goes to a different level. Imagine being driven around in a car which is hacked?

End Note:

I have also touched upon the implications of this for data science professionals and a few challenges in the domain. These are by no means exhaustive, but just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, I have told enough to get you excited about this evolving field.

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Related

Smartphone Location Data Brokers Clash With Privacy Advocates Over Coronavirus

The collection and sale of smartphone location data has long been a source of controversy, especially given that most people don’t realise they are being tracked.

Background

There have been a number of revelations about just how much location data is collected from smartphones, and how assurances about privacy may be far from true in practice.

When an app asks us for permission to access location data, the privacy policy generally states that this is anonymized. However, a New York Times investigation back in 2023 found that this isn’t necessarily the case – because specific, regular journeys easily identify individuals.

[One phone] leaves a house in upstate New York at 7 a.m. and travels to a middle school 14 miles away, staying until late afternoon each school day. Only one person makes that trip: Lisa Magrin, a 46-year-old math teacher. Her smartphone goes with her […]

The app tracked her as she went to a Weight Watchers meeting and to her dermatologist’s office for a minor procedure. It followed her hiking with her dog and staying at her ex-boyfriend’s home, information she found disturbing.

The report found that such data may be passed to as many as 40 different companies, and retained for years.

A follow-up report last year found that just one database contained location data for some 12 million Americans, and the NYT was able to track the movements of identifiable people in sensitive occupations.

We followed military officials with security clearances as they drove home at night. We tracked law enforcement officers as they took their kids to school […]

We spotted a senior official at the Department of Defense walking through the Women’s March [and] to a high school, homes of friends, a visit to Joint Base Andrews, workdays spent in the Pentagon and a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall with President Barack Obama in 2023.

Smartphone location data for coronavirus tracking

Location data brokers say that the data they collect can help in the fight to limit the spread of the coronavirus, reports CNET.

Antonio Tomarchio, president of CuebIQ, says it isn’t providing data directly to any government agency, but he noted the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network has been in contact with policymakers dealing with the pandemic […]

“What we’re interested in, is trends in certain areas,” Tomarchio said. “If you have a big crowd in a park, this could be an indication that social distancing is not being respected.”

Critics, however, voice three objections. First, making the collection of such data seem acceptable because it’s being used to do good.

“This is an essentially corrupt ecosystem of companies spying on people without any meaningful understanding or meaningful consent,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is a danger that we allow these companies to validate these activities and to whitewash their reputation by repurposing their data for COVID-19.”

Second, the data may not be representative of the US population as a whole.

Certain apps and devices are more widely used by affluent and younger communities, Stacey Gray, senior counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, told lawmakers. That could leave out some of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

“This includes underrepresentation of the elderly, very young or lowest-income people who do not own cellphones, or anyone who does not own a cellphone for other reasons, such as refusal on religious grounds,” Gray said in her testimony to Congress on Thursday.

Third, location data can be faked.

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