The National Security Agency (NSA) recently released helpful guidance on how to effectively limit location data exposure for its staffers, which also can be helpful information for the general public. Businesses likely will have different perspectives about location data than the NSA, which is trying to protect its staffers and its vital national security missions. For business, they may want to have location data about their consumers and workforce members for several reasons, but some may not realize they are even collecting this data. As laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) begin to become more widespread in the U.S., business will need to be more deliberate and aware of the data they are collecting.

The NSA guidance provides an outline of categories of mobile device geolocation services and recommendations on how to prevent exposure of sensitive location information and limit the amount of location data shared. The NSA also recommends pairing its guidance with an earlier Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) security tip on privacy and mobile device apps.

As many businesses think about the categories of personal information they collect from consumers, members of their workforce, others, geolocation may be the last thing that comes to mind. However, businesses are increasingly deploying apps, mobile phones, and devices to further their business needs. Consider the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many businesses have obtained or developed various devices and apps enabling them to more efficiently screen employees and consumers for coronavirus symptoms and to maintain social distancing. The data collected by the use of those technologies may not be apparent; businesses may be more focused on quickly meeting CDC and state guidance. More traditionally, businesses  might provide their workforce members company-owned iPhones, fitbits for a wellness programs, tablets to interact with consumers, or some other smart device or app, while not realizing all of its capabilities or configurations.

“A cell phone begins exposing location data the second it is powered on because it inherently trusts cellular networks and providers. Devices’ location data, from GPS to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections, may be acquired by others with or without the user or provider’s consent,” states the NSA. “Anything that sends and receives wireless signals has location risks similar to phones, including Internet of Things (IoT) devices, vehicles and many products with “smart” included in the name.”

In virtually all cases, the NSA will have different considerations for collecting and managing location data. For businesses, such information can be helpful to serve legitimate business needs. However, under the CCPA, for example, businesses need to provide “consumers” (which currently includes employees and applicants residing in California) with a notice at collection. This notice must explain the categories of personal information that the business collects, and one of those categories is geolocation data. The notice also must explain the purposes that such data will be used by the business. As businesses work through the process of rolling out new technologies, therefore, they’ll need to consider the scope of data collection, even if they are not interested in the data capable of being collected. If a business determines location data is not needed, the NSA guidance can be helpful as it provides mitigation tips to help limit the collection of same:

  • Disable location service settings on the device.
  • Disable radios when they are not actively in use: disable Bluetooth and turn off Wi-Fi if these capabilities are not needed.
  • Use Airplane Mode when the device is not in use.
  • Apps should be given as few permissions as possible (e.g. set privacy settings to ensure apps are not using or sharing location data).
  • Turn off settings (typically known as FindMy or Find My Device settings) that allow a lost, stolen, or misplaced device to be tracked.
  • Set browser privacy/permission location settings to not allow location data usage.
  • Use an anonymizing Virtual Private Network (VPN) to help obscure location.
  • Minimize the amount of data with location information that is stored in the cloud, if possible.

Of course, there are situations where the business will want to have location data collected, such on company-provided devices with Find My Device capabilities that allow lost, stolen, or misplaced devices to be located.

As many who have gone through compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union, the CCPA and other laws that may come after it in the U.S. will require businesses to think more carefully about the personal information they collect, including location data. The NSA guidance is a helpful step in thinking about steps the business can take to apply best practices to its collection of location data.