Apps on your phone might be tracking your every move. Here’s how to stop them.

December 10, 2018

Take a quick mental inventory of everything you did today.

You woke up. Walked to the bathroom. Drove to work. Maybe left for a doctor’s visit. Snuck in some fast food on the way back. Drove home. Took your kid to an after-school activity, or went on a date, or put in an hour at the gym.

Would you feel comfortable sharing all of that information with a company who was trying to sell you something?

If you had your phone with you, you might have already done so.

New York Times investigation found more than 1,000 popular apps — including the Weather Channel, WeatherBug, GasBuddy and theScore — contain code that gives developers access to “anonymous, precise location data.” App makers sell or analyze this data “to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior.”

And though that data doesn’t include any identifying information about you, it isn’t actually anonymous. Employees of these companies or their clients can easily follow patterns — where someone sleeps, where they go to work every day — to determine the identity of the person behind the data.

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to turn off location sharing (and the Times put together a how-to guide to make it even easier). Get to it.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Don’t stop there. After you’ve gone through and removed location tracking from apps that don’t need it, follow Craig Silverman’s advice about how to assess apps before downloading them. Essentially, stick to the credible app stores, run through the information they provide (reviews, star ratings, permissions and more) and watch for weird behavior after you’ve downloaded it. Oh, and Craig doesn’t say this, but don’t hand your phone to a kid unless your app store is password protected. Or do, if you want to get caught up on the latest weird, spammy game (I’m currently addicted to Hungry Shark Evolution, which is exactly as dumb as it sounds).

KEEP SEARCHING: And, hey, if you’re putting in that effort, you could also switch to DuckDuckGo for your search engine of choice. The Google alternative doesn’t track your searches and site history to sell ads, doesn’t tailor searches based on that information (which can create a filter bubble) and offers tools to block trackers on other sites. If you’re concerned about privacy, it’s worth a try. Phew. Today feels like Information Privacy Day here (actually, it’s National Lager Day, which seems a lot more fun).

GET SOCIAL: Designing an image for social media is a multistep process. The most annoying of those steps is trying to figure out what size the image should be. Sharing a photo on Facebook? It should be 1,200 by 630 pixels. Unless it’s the photo in a shared link. Then it should be 1,200 by 628. Making a cover photo? That’s a different size. Don’t bother memorizing those because they change from time to time. Instead, bookmark this social media image size cheat sheet.

  • You could also just use Canva, which not only comes with templates that have social sizes built in, but also allows you to switch between them with one click. It also got a fresh redesign and looks real purty.

BLEAK, BUT OK: Here’s where I recommend an app that only exists to remind you that you’re going to die. WeCroak claims to be based on a Bhutanese saying: “To be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” And so the app sends you five notifications every day reminding you of such, “at random times and at any moment, just like death.” It costs a dollar and mostly just makes me laugh nervously. At least it doesn’t ask for your location information.

THINKING OUT LOUD: Smart speakers are expected to find homes in half of American households by the end of the year. That represents a big opportunity for news producers. Or it would, if the experience wasn’t so bad. Consumers who queue up Alexa or Google now often hear the same outdated reports from different organizations delivered in long-winded formats. Google is trying to change that by bringing a voice-driven version of Google news to its smart speakers.

SHAMELESS: I’ve launched a lot of projects … and failed spectacularly at promoting almost all of them. It makes sense. It can feel pretty icky for journalists to bellow about accomplishments when the subjects of our work should be the focus. But, as consultant Kathryn Jaller says in her creative person’s guide to thoughtful promotion, “You don’t need to surrender your ethics and aesthetics to do the job.” Jaller offers tips and tricks in seven key areas about self-promotion. And you know it worked, because she’s promoted herself enough for her work to pop up in your inbox.

TOP TOOLS FOR 2018: From now until the end of the year, I’m sharing my top 10 tools for 2018 in this newsletter. These tools will only appear in the email edition of this newsletter. Sign up to get Try This! — Tools for Journalism (and my top 10 tools) in your inbox every Monday. If you’re unable or unwilling to sign up for some reason (perhaps you’re snowed in without Wi-Fi in South Carolina [but then how are you reading this?]), don’t worry. I’ll post the complete list to the website at the end of the year.

One last note and then I’ll leave you alone until next week.

On Sunday night, Poynter held its annual fundraising gala, called the Bowtie Ball. We dressed up like Nelson Poynter and celebrated the work of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Lester Holt and the journalists around the world who sacrifice everything, sometimes even their lives, to gather and share the news. Toward the end of the evening, the host asked attendees to donate to Poynter and I, dear reader, could not help but shed a few tears in the back of the room when an overwhelming amount of hands went up. We exist to support journalists and, if you are able to, we would be grateful if you chose to support us.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.