A Warning to New Runners: Check the Privacy Settings on Your Running App

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s the start of a new year, which means there will be a lot of new runners on the streets who have picked up the hobby as a New Year’s resolution. If you’re one of them, then welcome to one of the most fun and addictive types of exercise that I’ve ever experienced!

As you’ll soon discover (if you haven’t already), one of the most invaluable tools for runners is a GPS app. Running apps for cell phones and smartwatches can track all kinds of valuable data about your runs: speed, distance, cadence, heart rate, and more. When the run is over, you can even see a map of the entire area you covered. Almost every runner I know uses these apps for at least some of their runs.

Overall, I’m a big supporter of these apps. I’m totally reliant on them for keeping track of my progress, and I use one for essentially every run I go on. There’s one big problem with them though: running apps are a privacy nightmare.

Privacy Concerns

The problem with running apps is that many of them default to showing the entire world your runs. Not only are you broadcasting when you run, but you may even be uploading GPS maps of exactly where you’ve run.

If you start your runs from home, you might be posting a public map that literally leads to your front door.

Strava, the most popular running app, also has a feature called “flyby” which shows you the maps of all the other Strava users that you pass on a given run. Similarly, all of those users can see your map.

This can be a dangerous amount of information to be putting out into the world, and many runners don’t even realize that they are doing it.

Fortunately, running apps do have ways to adjust the privacy settings. So, you don’t need to forgo the apps entirely, but it is extremely important to check and adjust the privacy settings before you go for even a single run.

If you’re using Strava, you can access the privacy settings by going selecting “Privacy Controls” from the settings menu. Here are the most important privacy settings to adjust:

Privacy Zones

Privacy zones are areas that will never be included on a public map of any of your runs. So, if you set a privacy zone around your house, when other users look at your activity, they will see your run as ending somewhere before your actual home.

At a bare minimum, every user should set up a privacy zone around their home and workplace. This will help prevent random strangers from seeing a map directly to where you live and work.

Activities and Group Activities

If a privacy zone isn’t enough for you, you can also adjust whether your running maps are displayed at all. “Activities” are your normal runs, and “Group Activities” are runs that you do with other users. You can set each of these to only be visible to people who you are friends with on the app. Solo activities can also be set to only visible by you.

The best way to completely ensure your privacy is to change the maps so that only you can see them, but if you’re interested in sharing your runs with friends, you can set it to followers only.

Flyby

The flyby settings adjust whether people who pass you on your runs will automatically see a map of your entire run. Even though there’s a fun aspect to seeing how fast nearby runners are going, it isn’t a great setting to leave on as far as privacy goes. Anyone that you pass will see a map of your run for the day, and from there they can easily follow a link back to your profile to see all of your public runs.

Metro/Heatmap

The final setting to consider turning off is the Metro/Heatmap. By default, your runs are anonymously included in a heatmap of where runners in your city most often run. Since the data is anonymous, the privacy concern might not be immediately obvious.

The problem is, in rural and low-population areas, there might be so few runners using the app that you’re essentially the only one contributing data. This can end up making your runs unintentionally public. I actually noticed this happening with my own runs through my neighborhood. Even though I live in a city, my neighborhood has few enough runners that my daily run was clearly visible on the heatmap.

Don’t let these privacy concerns scare you away from running apps entirely. The apps really are a uniquely valuable tool for improving as a runner. The key is to take the time to really look into the privacy settings before you start using the apps, to make sure you know exactly what information you’re broadcasting to the world.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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