On Tuesday, the National Security Agency (NSA) released new guidance for military and intelligence-community personnel that cautions of the risks with using cellphone location tracking via apps, wireless networks, and Bluetooth technology.
Selling off location data?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the warning is an acknowledgement by the country's top intelligence agency of the national security threat that Silicon Valley's collection and sale of cellphone location information poses to those within the government.
The NSA bulletin wrote that location data is particularly useful and extremely valuable; hence the need to protect it. The agency notes the data could be used to reveal details about the number of users in a given location, movements of users and supplies, daily routines (both user and organizational), and expose otherwise hidden associations between different parties.
With the agency's warnings, it also recommends disabling location-sharing services on mobile devices, giving apps as few permissions as possible, and turning off permissions to advertisements.
The NSA said it would also be helpful to limit web browsing in mobile devices, block browsers from using location data, and switch off settings that enable a user to locate the device with the use of its location data.
Reportedly, apps frequently gather and share anonymized location data to third-party location data brokers who then proceed to market the digital products to government and corporate customers.
There are also other services that can estimate the location of a mobile phone through its proximity to other Bluetooth devices or wireless networks.
Law enforcement and intelligence services have access to more invasive technologies such as "Stingray;" cell-tower simulators that gather location information and Wi-Fi "sniffers" that use network information to track a phone's data.
The NSA's warning goes beyond mobile devices. It continues to caution that use of fitness trackers, smartwatches, internet-connected medical devices, smart-home devices, and modernized automobiles that are equipped with location-tracking technology may be at risk as well.
Several governments around the world, including the United States, have steadily become more aggressive in gathering location data and other information for surveillance purposes as well as finding crime suspects, as reported by the New York Post.
The agency's warning also comes at a time when tensions between the US government and Chinese-owned video app TikTok are on the rise with United States President Donald Trump saying he will move to have the app banned from the US.
Tech giant Microsoft had intervened to say that it planned to purchase TikTok to and conduct a security review and overhaul to ensure it does not pose a risk of leaking security and sensitive information to China.
Government officials have shared their anxiety over a Chinese-owned company having access to the nation's data information and could have ramifications on the international level.
Technical director for cybersecurity at the NSA, Neal Ziring, said despite the many benefits to using mobile devices, the exposure of location data poses a significant risk to users across the nation. Ziring said the agency considers the needs of its authorities and customers to publish technical and threat analyses.
The director noted that with the increase of connected mobile devices that expand into several more networks, it had received a surge of queries from national security customers of the guarantee of being able to use them securely.