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Apps can track and store your precise location, but can others access that data?

A social media post is claiming others can access your precise location from social media apps. However, a data privacy expert says it's not easily accessible.

PHOENIX — A post making the rounds online right now is raising concerns that social media companies are not only tracking you, but that others could get a hold of that information and use it to commit crimes against you. 

While social media companies are collecting data about your location, a data privacy expert says it's not easily accessible by others. 

Tracking your location data

With a world of social media easily accessible any hour of the day at our fingertips, there's much more going on beyond the app on your phone. 

"It's been going on for a long time, apps have this ability to really follow your very fine-grained movements," said Jen Golbeck, a data privacy expert and professor at the University of Maryland's College of Information Studies.

A post on Instagram is now warning of how the platform is tracking users' precise location, claiming other people can get their hands on that information and stalk or steal from a specific user. 

A spokesperson for Instagram's parent company, Meta, said in a statement to 12News that their company doesn't share location data information: 

"We don’t share your location with others. Similar to other social media companies, we use precise location for things like location tags and maps features. People can manage Location Services via their device settings, and tag locations on their posts if they want to share that information." - A Meta spokesperson

"This kind of precise tracking, you know, I think Meta would get in a lot of trouble legally if they made that available to people, which is not to say it couldn't leak, but it's not their intention to do that. And so I think that idea of someone just getting a hold of it and using it, that's right now a pretty low risk," Golbeck said. 

Golbeck said if someone's worried about being stalked or tracked by someone, then they should not tag where they were or are in posts on social media. 

How precise is 'precise'?

Golbeck has studied just how exact apps can track your movements. 

"Depending on your settings, they can track you all day as you move around and get that data," Golbeck said. 

In an example, Golbeck said data showed that students' class schedules could be recreated down to what room in a specific academic building they were in. 

"Generally, it's not useful for them to give that information directly to other people. But what we've seen over and over from Facebook, you know, Meta, the parent company of Instagram is that that information tends to get out sometimes in all kinds of ways that they kind of may not have told us what happened and that they maybe didn't even initially plan," Golbeck said. 

Expert recommends shutting off location services

One of Golbeck's concerns about this data is that apps are collecting it simply because they can, not with a specific use in mind. 

"They get it anyway, just saying, 'Well, we'll figure out later how we can make money with this.'," Golbeck said. "And so that doesn't imply that they are treating it seriously as like a very personal piece of information." 

That's why Golbeck said she recommends shutting location services off for anything except what you actually need it on for. 

Golbeck said location services are turned off on her devices all the time except GPS/navigation type apps or others that are location-based. 

"I recommend this is a great time to turn it off for every app that doesn't really need it," Golbeck said.

Even so, Golbeck warns the apps can find ways around the location services being turned off, but it's not as specific. 

"Even if you turn off location services, apps like Instagram are able to use like your Wi-Fi signal to find your location anyway, not as precisely, but there's all sorts of ways that even if we say, 'Don't collect this,' they find ways to do it because it helps them make profits and there's sort of very little power that we have over that," Golbeck said.

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