Popular apps like WeatherBug and GasBuddy are tracking your location with incredible detail, report says

  • Location data are often sent or sold to advertisers and retailers, The New York Times finds. The data are supposedly anonymous but are detailed enough to be easily linked to a user through homeowner records or employment.
  • The findings come at a time when consumers are increasingly locking down their data from companies, and tech giants like Google and Facebook are facing harsh criticism for their privacy practices.
  • Revelations of tracking by smaller apps that haven't yet landed under public scrutiny could usher in sweeping changes in the data and advertising industries.
Two pedestrians use iPhones as they walk in Union Square in San Francisco, California.
Getty Images
Two pedestrians use iPhones as they walk in Union Square in San Francisco, California.

Popular smartphone apps like WeatherBug, The Weather Channel and GasBuddy are tracking users' locations with extreme detail, collecting specific street addresses and extensive trip profiles, according to a new investigation by The New York Times.

The Times reviewed data from more than a million smartphones and found extensive data collection practices were also conducted by apps including theScore, DC Metro and Bus, Tube Map — an app for the London Underground subway system — and an app for free children's games called Masha and the Bear, which shares the name of a popular Russian children's television show.

That data are often sent or sold to advertisers and retailers, the Times found. The information is supposed to be anonymous but it's detailed enough to be easily linked to a user through homeowner records or employment. The apps frequently bury the intended commercial uses of the data in terms of service agreements or privacy settings, the investigation found.

The findings come at a time when consumers are increasingly locking down their data from companies, and tech giants like Google and Facebook are facing harsh criticism for their privacy practices.

Some of the largest tech firms have already adjusted their disclosures and default privacy settings. But revelations of tracking by smaller apps that haven't yet landed under public scrutiny could usher in sweeping changes in the data and advertising industries.

Representatives for WeatherBug told the Times it provides multiple prompts to inform users of location data practices. Representatives for The Weather Channel said the company provides the relevant information "where users most expect to see it — in Privacy Settings and our Privacy Policy." GasBuddy discloses up front that data could be used to "analyze industry trends."

Read the full investigation, and how The New York Times put it together.