Life360 and similar tracking apps are double-edged swords

January 13, 2020 — by Rohan Kumar and Kavita Sundaram

Life360 allows parents to monitor where their children are and how fast they are driving, among other features.

Junior Anya Jobalia had been enjoying the Halloween Haunt at Great America with her friends one night in late October when they saw panicked people running toward 

 strong-arm robbery caused hundreds to flee the park for fear that a mass-shooting event was occurring as it had during the Gilroy Garlic Festival in late July.

Jobalia and her friends ran and hid. An hour later, her parents were able to pick them up, in part by using a location-tracking app called Life360.

Life360 allows parents to monitor where their children are and how fast they are driving, among other features. The app is free, but has extra features that users can pay for. The Plus version of the app costs $2.99 a month and includes crime reports, and the Driver Protect version costs $7.99 a month with additional features such as crash detection, roadside assistance, emergency response, and a driver report.

With over 18 million monthly users by the end of 2018, according to Business Insider, the app has become a prevalent part of many teens’ lives, leading to controversy about its usage. Some find the app to be a daily necessity, letting them stay connected with their parents, while others see it as a tool for parents to have Big Brother-like control of their lives.

In an email to Business Insider, Life360 CEO Chris Hull defended the tracking app, writing, “Yes, there are some from frustrated teens, but you will overwhelmingly see reviews from parents and teens on how they use the app for everyday coordination and safety.”

Junior Matthew Luo is among the teens who does not find the loss of privacy from his parents a major problem.

“It has a driver protection program with crash detection and a monthly distracted driving report,” he said. “My mom also likes knowing where I am, which I don’t really have a problem with.”

Sophomore Linnea Bradley said the app is useful for streamlining her life. She likes being able to track her parents so that she can she see when they need to leave the house to pick her up from school or crew practice. Rather than seeing the app as an invasion of privacy, she sees it as a convenient way to keep up with her family.

“It’s really simple, efficient and organized, and it does what you need,” Bradley said.

In addition to everyday convenience, some users have found that the app helps in emergency situations, as it did for Jobalia. A blog on Life360’s website chronicles such instances. For example, an article titled “How Life360 Helped Beth find her Daughter” explained how a mother found her 16-year-old daughter drinking at a high-school party past midnight, allowing her to bring her daughter home safely. 

Jobalia’s Great America experience also left her with a good impression of the app.

“It was cool that Life360 could show exactly where we were,” Jobalia said. “I also checked Life360 later to see how far we went because we didn’t really know where we were running.”

Her parents noted how helpful the app was as well. 

“We were able to track Anya and were relieved to know her location during the Great America incident,” Jobalia’s mother, Manali Jobalia, said. “Life360 is a useful app in general, since it is convenient for staying connected.”

Although there are several benefits to using location tracking apps, there have been reports of some family members abusing the tracking feature.

According to a Daily Mail article, parents’ abuse of tracking apps can foster unhealthy parent-child relationships, instilling unnecessary fear in kids and degrading mutual trust.

Senior Ryan Le said his mom does not use Life360 often, but her insistence that he keep the app on his phone activated at all times has reduced the trust between them.

“I think the app is harmful because you’re withdrawing your trust in your own child,” Le said. “If I have my car and I have my license, my mom should trust me enough because she provided me with the car.”

Although Le thinks having location tracking can be beneficial, he feels like Life360 provides too much information to parents.

“The level to which Life360 tracks is not just location. It’ll track how much battery life you have or how fast your car is going,” Le said. “All you really need to know is where somebody is, so it is kind of an infringement of privacy.”

Junior Juan Vintimilla says the app has given his parents an excessive view into his life.

His parents can see exactly when and where he has lunch, one time asking him why he was at a restaurant. While he was away at a summer program, his parents remotely enforced a curfew using Life360. 

“If you’re traveling with somebody, then it makes sense,” Vintimilla said. “But if you’re just going around school and your house, knowing every part in between is a little much.”

In the background of this debate is perhaps the thornier questions of why teens and their parents would willingly give their data — their locations — to Life360 and at what cost. Many apps store information and can be liable to breaches that can expose users’ personal data.

According to Life360’s support page, the app does share the location information of their users with third parties to help with advertising, research, analytics and other purposes. They also use tools like Google Analytics to help them better understand the demographic of their customers. 

But for the 73.5 percent of Americans concerned with anyone having access to their personal data, according to a survey conducted by USC Annenberg, this might not be ideal. 

For all the benefits he sees with Life360, Luo thinks the loss of data privacy is a major flaw.

“I would rather not use Life360 because there is definitely a sense of uncertainty about how secure the app is in terms of hack attempts,” Luo said. “I feel like a tracking app that gets so much attention and publicity like Life360 has to have been attempted to be hacked, kind of like Facebook.”

In late September 2018, an attack on Facebook exposed the personal information of nearly 50 million users. Earlier, Cambridge Analytica, a British analytics firm that worked with the Trump campaign during the 2016 elections, got access to 87 million Facebook users. 

The fact that Life360 stores so much private information about its users is a concern for Jobalia as well.

“I feel like Life360 is a pretty safe app,” Jobalia said. “But if someone did hack it, they would know where we live, which is kind of scary. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”

Advocates of the app point to its many benefits such as the ability to reunite families like Jobalia’s in an emergency. Time will tell if its benefits will outweigh the costs to the privacy and independence so many teens crave.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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