Snapchat + Zenly - The Privacy and Security Risks of Location Sharing Apps

by Stephen Schroeder - Jul 13, 2017 Category: Friends
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Whoa, this is big news!

Recently the tech community found out that Snap Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, has bought Zenly for about $300 million. Snap Map, a recent new feature found in Snapchat, is based on Zenly’s technology. Zenly is an app made by a French startup that lets users hang out with friends, and it is location based. Basically, you share your location with friends and then you can hang out and do stuff. The app managed to become quite popular, by using location sharing in a new way.

Zenly is clever

By improving the biggest downside of most location sharing apps, the battery drain, along with making location sharing a fun, social, and exciting experience by adding lots of interesting features, Zenly managed to make location-sharing a social network-like experience, much better than Foursquare did back in the day. The app uses your location only when it needs it, by cleverly notifying you that a friend wants to know your location.

This conceals the fact that the app is the one using your location. By combining your and your friends’ locations, the app can create smart social maps, showing you “hot zones” if lots of your companions are hanging out together, and notifying you if someone leaves the country or gets back into the city.

Zenly homepage
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Zenly homepage

Snap Map is similar. It uses battery only when used, and adds a new location-based social layer to Snapchat. And much more. By using social based location-sharing, Zenly’s smart location technology, along with lots of interesting data, is a holy grail of internet advertising. Since both apps, Zenly and Snapchat, are immensely popular with teenagers, Snap Inc. now has a huge and specific user group, which communicates online and hang offline. Once a user decides they want to go out with their crew, ads can “guide” their decision about picking the place. Just imagine how much Snapchat improved their value with advertisers.

But maybe too clever?

But, using a location-based social network bears lots of issues, most of them being security-based. You see, back in 2014, a huge data breach compromised 4.6 million Snapchat users, when their usernames and phone numbers were stolen by hackers. Just a couple of months after, another security breach leaked at least 100,000 Snapchat photos online. Since then, Snap Inc. managed to improve its security, at least on users’ side by adding two-step verification process. But using the app is still a high security risk.

And on the other hand, we have Zenly, a social network based on sharing your location with friends (and with the app), that continued to operate independently, like Facebook did with Instagram. The app now faces the same risk of getting its user’s data stolen, after being taken by Snapchat. Its smart social maps have immense value for marketers, and users should be worried because the app tracks their data, like its new parent company’s main app does.

Zenly’s users should have lots of privacy concerns, and lots of security ones also. Zenly can track your location, but instead making the data private, like some other location-sharing apps, it shares it with all your friends. Sure, there’s an option to make yourself “invisible” but most users don’t use the feature since they look at the app like on a social network and not a location-sharing app. Most other location sharing apps let you share your location just with persons you select.

Also, there’s no info on Zenly’s security measures when it comes keeping users’ data secure. Some location-sharing apps use advanced measures, like end-to-end encryption in order to make users’ personal data secure. All this makes both Snapchat and Zenly prone to a security breach, and we shouldn’t even start talking about privacy issues.

Just imagine a scene where you plan to go out with friends by using Zenly. It can track your location, see where you like to dine, and where to have a beer or two. By tracking your and your friend’s data, the app can serve you highly targeted ads. By using it, you are simply a piece in a giant puzzle that’s free but carries lots of downsides, like tracking your private data, and giving up on privacy.

But, the security and privacy issues mentioned above are not the only ones entwined with location sharing apps. For instance, sharing your location publicly (on Facebook, or yes, via Zenly) can let other people see your location, especially if you decide to share it on Facebook where almost anyone can see it.

Privacy issues connected with location sharing apps

If you use a location sharing app from Google (Google Maps introduced location sharing a while ago) or Facebook (location sharing features are part of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp) get ready to be tightly followed. Google and Facebook are probably the two biggest digital ad agencies in the world (both companies receive a huge chunk of their profit from ads) and you can be assured they will use your location data to serve you better ads.

They will also know your exact location, and in combination with the rest of your private info two companies have you will be swarmed with tightly-targeted ads, made just for you, similarly to what Zenly and Shapchat do but on a much larger scale. Facebook alone uses 98 personal data points in order to serve you with specific ads, and we believe Google isn’t behind Facebook when it comes to collecting data from its users.

Further, when users agree to use a location sharing service, they usually don’t know about different ways their data could be used in. For instance, many location sharing services, as we already mentioned, share location data with third parties who may not have high enough security precautions to assure data will stay safe.

And many location sharing apps use location data to track users, to track their whereabouts and daily routines, and this data gets compromised users can end up with their location history being stolen or accessed by hackers.

And a bigger a company providing a location-based service is, the higher the chance is for government agencies to ask for the data from a company. While biggest players, like Apple, reject all inquiries by law enforcement agencies, it is known that CIA and FBI did use data from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and others.

There are lots of privacy concerns tied to location-sharing services and apps so if you decide to use one, make sure the service’s primal feature is location sharing, not collecting data from users in order to track them as serve them ads. Also, make sure the service doesn’t include any social features, since those usually mean that some way of tracking and collecting data is present inside the app.

Aside from privacy issues, location sharing apps also have some serious security issues.

Security issues tied with location sharing apps and services

There are many security issues when using an app with location sharing features. Most of the issues come from inadequate security measures used by companies making those apps. For instance, Tinder (a location-based dating app) faced problems when a security firm discovered it is possible to pinpoint any user’s location because the app released telemetry data without securing it. This could lead to hackers revealing user’s location simply by triangulating a user.

Grindr (an app similar to Tinder, used by gay and bisexual men) also faced massive security problems when it was discovered the app has flaws allowing for hackers to get their hands on user’s location data with extreme precision. The flaw was used in Egypt by authorities in order to enforce country’s anti-gay laws.

Many location-sharing apps do not feature end-to-end encryption, thus potentially putting data from their users to third parties that can use data for blackmailing, tracking or something worse. So remember, if you want to use a location sharing app, aside from following advice we shared above, make sure the app has end-to-end encryption, assuring that user data will be safe at all times.

Also, when using a location-sharing map, try sending your location via the app instead via an external link. Someone might intercept the data, especially if using a public Wi-Fi network, and use it. While a nice feature, it can danger your security.

Just as importantly, ask how is the app company using your location data? Companies are harvesting this data for resale regularly for advertising and data collection.

En fin

Basically, if you want your location data to stay private and secure, you can use a location-sharing app that does not share your location with others automatically and that features end-to-end encryption (like Turtler). Also, make sure not to use location-sharing apps that track and use your data for serving you ads or trying to make you a member of a new social network. Instead, use location sharing apps that are secure and have location sharing as their main purpose.