Do you feel comfortable knowing that there’s an invisible force following you, shadowing your every move from home to work to the grocery store to kids activities to Sunday picnics, all day every day? Even if you are not obsessed with privacy, the idea that unknown companies, through your smartphone, can and do constantly track your whereabouts — specific places you go and for the duration of your stay — following your route around town and back home, can be unnerving. But that’s what mobile phones and apps do these days, unless you put a stop to it.
While many smartphone users have had longstanding anxieties about privacy, concern ratcheted up sharply with recent revelations from a New York Times investigative report that threw into sharp relief the alarming extent to which every single smartphone owner’s whereabouts are constantly recorded and archived.
Derived from the smartphones of some 12 million Americans spanning 2016 and 2017, the newspaper used a leaked dataset from one of the many anonymous companies that collect data from your favorite mobile apps, and examined more than 50 billion recorded location pings. If that’s not bad enough, there are no laws prohibiting the collection and sale of such personal data gathered without consent. In a completely futile effort to reassure a jittery public, these companies assured observers that they share sensitive data only with “vetted partners.”
That’s cold comfort for many because this information is none of anyone’s business. And while this data is now being collected for ostensibly benign commercial purposes, it could conceivably be used in unanticipated and unethical ways: To assist contentious parties in legal proceedings, reveal personal secrets or confidential physical conditions, or even put people in legal or employment jeopardy for political or personal activities.
But now that we have some idea of the extent of data collection, we can take control over our privacy. Knowing how you get tracked also lets you choose how and when to use your phone’s location services. If you need turn-by-turn directions in a mapping app, it’s a good idea to share locations with that app, and if you want to make sure you know the park you visited where you saw that beautiful flower, you’ll want to enable location services for your Camera app, or employ your smartphone’s Find features in case you misplace or lose track of it. On the other hand, there are some localized apps — like news and weather — for which there’s no earthly reason for an app to track you to your exact street.
If you are concerned about the data being collected about your life, first figure out what apps on your phone are collecting location information and learn how to use your smartphone’s built-in controls to limit sharing with third parties. For the most part, the process is fairly simple and quick, though hardly foolproof. The goal is to do as much as you can whenever possible. Here’s how to control which apps access your location on iOS and Android.
The sequence here is from iOS 13.3, the latest release of the iOS app. However, earlier versions of the Apple operating system also offer similar ways you can limit excessive sharing of your location data from your iPhone.
On iOS devices, you get several options that enable sharing your precise location with an app: Always, Ask Next Time, While Using the App, or Never. The newest iOS also gives you a choice called Allow Once, which does exactly what it says. If you are using iOS 13, you may also receive notifications about when an app is using your location in the background, how many times apps have accessed your location, a map of the location, and an explanation of why the app uses that information.
Apple has made it harder for data miners to track your location via nearby Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but be sure to install all iPhone upgrades for the latest security features. Observe the Location Services key that gives you more details about how location services are being used in each app. By the way, it’s always a good idea to put your phone in Lost Mode via iCloud because regardless of circumstance, Location Services can be re-enabled on the device, if needed.
To turn off location sharing, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services to select when to share your location for each app — or not.
You can also prevent your phone from sharing your location in the background via Settings > General > Background App Refresh. From there you can switch apps location sharing on and off for individual apps.
Your online activity is often tracked using your mobile Advertising ID, which is a unique number created by your phone and shared with advertisers and app makers — and it’s another conduit through your location data is shared. Disable this feature in your privacy settings via Settings > Privacy > Advertising > Limit Ad Tracking. Get familiar with System Services so you can toggle switches on and off for a variety of features that reveal a laundry list of information about your local activities, like Traffic, Popular Near Me, Significant Locations, Location-based Apple Ads, Location-based suggestions, and more. You can monitor these settings and switch them on and off at will. You can use the Clear History control to wipe out Significant Locations altogether both for your iPhone and all other devices signed in to your iCloud account.
Customizing Android is a little more complex than iOS because each smartphone manufacturer takes certain liberties with the operating system to tailor it to their device, and the latest Android 10 OS is not uniformly available to every qualified Android handset. The example below references the LG V40 ThinQ, which currently runs Android 9.
To turn off location sharing, go to Settings > General > Lock screen & security > Location > App-level permissions. You can choose whether to share your location for each app. Of the 25 apps, 10 alerted users that functionality would be compromised if they switched off location sharing. Several other Google-related location services — like the Emergency Location Service (ELS) — are available in some regions, letting you call or text an emergency number that will transmit your location to police or first responders.
Google Location History on your phone is controlled by your Google account, which you sign into on your mobile device as well as on the desktop if you’re also using a computer. It saves your location with every mobile device and is available when you’re signed in to your Google Account, and have Location History and Location Reporting enabled. That service continuously saves your locations to give you personalized services. It’s designed to let you control your online experience across devices so you can also sync your Chrome browser history, web and app activities, voice and audio recordings, YouTube history and searches, and more. If you choose to have all those settings enabled, it likely results in a fairly strong profile of you, your habits, and tastes.
You can opt out of your mobile Ad ID via Settings > Google > Ads > Opt out of Ads personalization.
If you have a Google account, you can prevent Google from storing your location, though be prepared that the company already has a lot of data about you already. Do not be shocked to discover the exact date you visited your local subway station seven years ago. You can prevent Google from collecting any more information by turning off location sharing in your account’s location activity controls.
Controlling app location tracking is a challenge that all mobile phone users face for now and the foreseeable future. There’s no perfect way to prevent internet marketers from tracking you and selling your data. As app vendors and phone manufacturers develop increasingly sophisticated tools to let you control how much of your information gets out there, the other side is perfecting new ways to circumvent controls over what they can find out about your life. The best you can do is maintain awareness, be familiar with all the controls at your disposal, and allow your location to be shared only at a bare minimum necessary for you to function.
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