Pick any app on your phone, and there's a greater than average chance that it's tracking your location right now.
Sometimes, they don't even tell you. Your location can be continually collected and uploaded, then monetized by advertisers and other data tracking firms. These companies also sell the data to the government — no warrants needed. And even if you're app-less, your phone company knows where you are at any given time, and for the longest time sold that data to anyone who wanted it.
Location data is some of the most personal information we have, yet few people think much about it. Our location reveals where we go, when, and often why. It can be used to know our favorite places and our routines and who we talk to. And yet it's spilling out of our phones every second of every day to private companies, subject to little regulation or oversight, building up precise maps of our lives. However, headlines have sparked anger and pushed lawmakers into taking action, and consumers are increasingly aware of their tracked activity thanks to phone makers, like Apple, alerting users to background location tracking. Foursquare, one of the biggest location data companies, even called on Congress to do more to regulate the sale of location data.
But location data is not going anywhere. It's too convenient, and it's an industry that's growing. The location data market was valued at $10 billion last year and its set to balloon in size by more than two-fold by 2027.
Yet there's appetite for change. Radar, a location data startup based in New York, promised in a recent blog post that it will "not sell any data we collect, and we do not share location data across customers." It's a promise that Radar CEO Nick Patrick said he's willing to bet the company on.
"We want to be that location layer that unlocks the next generation of experiences, but we also want to do it in a privacy conscious way," Patrick told TechCrunch. "That's our big bet."
Developers integrate Radar into their apps. Those app makers can create location geofences around their businesses, like any Walmart or Burger King. When a user enters that location, the app knows to serve relevant notifications or alerts, making it functionally just like any other location data provider.
But that's where Patrick says Radar deviates.
"We want to be the most privacy-first player," Patrick said. Radar bills itself as a location data software-as-a-service company, rather than an ad tech company like its immediate rivals. That may sound like a marketing point — it is — but it's also an important distinction, Patrick says, because it changes how the company makes its money. Instead of monetizing the collected data, Radar prices its platform based on the number of monthly active users that use the apps with Radar inside.
"We're not going to package that up into an audience segment and sell it on an ad exchange," he said. "We're not going to pull all of the data together from all the different devices that we're installed on and do foot traffic analytics or attribution."
But that trust doesn't come easy, nor should it. Some of the most popular apps have lost the trust of their users through privacy-invasive practices, like collecting locations from users without their knowledge or permission, by scanning nearby Bluetooth beacons or Wi-Fi networks to infer where a person is.
We were curious and ran some of the apps through a network traffic analyzer to see what was going on under the hood, like Joann, GasBuddy, Draft King and others. We found that Radar only activated when location permissions were granted on the device — something apps have tried to get around in the past. The apps we checked instantly sent our precise location data back to Radar — which was to be expected — along with the device type, software version, and little else. The data collected by Radar is significantly less than what other comparable apps share with their developers, but still allows integrations with third-party platforms to make use of that location data. Via, a popular ride-sharing app, uses a person's location, collected by Radar, to deliver notifications and promotions to users at airports and other places of interest.
The company boasts its technology is used in apps on more than 100 million device installs.
"We see a ton of opportunity around enabling folks to build location, but we also see that the space has been mishandled," said Patrick. "We think the location space is in need of a technical leader but also an ethical leader that can enable the stuff in a privacy conscious way."
It was a convincing pitch for Radar's investors, which just injected $20 million into its Series B fundraise, led by Accel, a substantial step up from its $8 million Series A round. Patrick said the round will help the company build out the platform further. One feature on Radar's to-do list was to allow the platform to take advantage of on-device processing, "no user event data ever touches Radar's servers," he said. The raise will help the company expand its physical footprint on the west coast by opening an office in San Francisco. Its home base in New York will also expand, he said, increasing the company's headcount from its current two-dozen employees.
"Radar stands apart due to its focus on infrastructure rather than ad tech," said Vas Natarajan, a partner at Accel, who also took a seat on Radar's board.
Two Sigma Ventures, Heavybit, Prime Set, and Bedrock Capital participated in the round.
Patrick said his pitch is also working for apps and developers, which recognize that their users are becoming more aware of privacy issues. He's seen companies, some of which he now calls customers, that are increasingly looking for more privacy-focused partners and vendors, not least to bolster their own respective reputations.
It's healthy to be skeptical. Given the past year, it's hard to have any faith in any location data company, let alone embrace one. And yet it's a compelling pitch for the app community that only through years of misdeeds and a steady stream of critical headlines is being forced to repair its image.
But a company's words are only as strong as its actions, and only time will tell if they hold up.