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How to control which apps access your location on iOS and Android

Do you feel comfortable knowing that an invisible force follows you, shadowing your every move all day every day? It sees specific places you go and the duration of your stay. It follows your route around town and then your return back home. How, you ask? Through your smartphone and apps.

The idea that unknown companies can and do constantly track your whereabouts can be unnerving. But you can put a stop to it right now. You can determine what apps are collecting location information and then learn how to use your phone’s built-in controls to limit sharing your life with these strangers.

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.

How to control your location data

There are times when accessing your location is OK, and there are times when it’s not.

For instance, sharing locations with a mapping app is a good idea when you need turn-by-turn directions. Sharing locations with a Camera app is good for when you want to remember the park where you saw that beautiful flower. More importantly, location services are necessary for finding your misplaced, lost, or stolen device.

On the other hand, there are some localized apps — like news and restaurants — for which there’s no earthly reason for an app to track you to your exact street. Here’s how to take control.

iOS 14

Apple’s iOS provides several options that enable sharing your precise location with an app, but they are slightly different based on the version installed on your phone. In iOS 14, you’ll see options for Never, Ask Next Time, While Using the App, and Always. In iOS 13, you’ll see Allow While Using App, Allow Once, and Don’t Allow.

If you are using iOS 13 or newer, you may also receive notifications about when an app is using your location in the background and how many times apps have accessed your location, a map of the location, and an explanation of why the app uses that information.

Apple makes tracking your location via nearby Bluetooth and Wi-Fi hard for data miners, but be sure to install all iOS updates 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. Putting your phone in Lost Mode via iCloud is also a good idea because regardless of circumstance, location services can be reenabled on the device if needed.

The following instructions are based on iOS 14.4, the latest version available at the time of this publication. However, earlier versions also offer similar ways you can limit the excessive sharing of your location data from your iPhone.

Turn off Location Services

This turns off location sharing across the board. It’s not ideal if you want Google Maps or Pokemon Go to access your location. If you want a more app-refined approach, move on to the next instruction set.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Scroll down and tap Privacy.

Step 3: Tap Location Services.

Step 4: Tap the Toggle next to Location Services to switch this feature off.

Turn off location sharing for specific apps

In this case, you need location sharing for some apps, but not for others. For example, the city of Atlanta’s dedicated app doesn’t need to know we’re now in Los Angeles.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Scroll down and tap Privacy.

Step 3: Tap Location Services.

Step 4: Tap the app you want to modify.

Step 5: Tap one of the four options.

Step 6: Tap the Toggle next to Precise Location to turn this feature off as an added precaution. This isn’t available when the app is set to Never.

Stop location sharing in the background

You can also prevent your phone from sharing your location in the background.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Tap General.

Step 3: Tap Background App Refresh.

Step 4: Tap the Toggle next to the app you want to disable.

Note: If you want to disable the background refresh of all apps, tap Background App Refresh instead, followed by Off on the next screen.

Disable access to Identifier For Advertisers (IDFA)

 Your online activity is often tracked using your mobile IDFA, which is a random device identifier assigned to your device. It’s meant to deliver custom advertisements without giving advertisers access to personal information.  However, it’s another conduit for accessing your location.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Scroll down and tap Privacy.

Step 3: Tap Tracking.

Step 4: Tap the Toggle next to Allow Apps to Request to Track to switch this feature off.

Get familiar with System Services

Here, you can toggle on and off 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.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Scroll down and tap Privacy.

Step 3: Tap Location Services.

Step 4: Scroll down to the bottom and tap System Services.

You can monitor these settings and switch them on and off at will.

Step 5: Scroll down and tap  Significant Locations.

Step 6: Tap Clear History to remove these locations as needed. This applies to all devices registered to your Apple ID.

This setting alone can be an eye-opener, showing that the device has recorded specific locations within a single city, and how many times you’ve visited those locations.

Android 11/Android 10

Google Location History on your phone is controlled by your Google Account, which you can access on any mobile device and PC. It saves your location when you’re signed in, no matter the device, if Location History and Location Reporting are enabled.

Google’s 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.

If you’re using a device with Android 10 or 11, then you’ll have a few more location options you can tweak, including when location services can be used per app. The example screenshots reference the Samsung Galaxy S20 running Android 10, but we also note pure Android 11 where needed.

Change location permissions per app

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app. Alternatively, swipe a finger down from the top to expand the shade and then tap the Cog icon.

Step 2: Tap Location.

Step 3: On Samsung phones, tap App Permissions. On Pixel phones, tap App Access to Location.

All apps are divided into three categories: Allowed All The Time, Allowed Only While In Use, and Denied.

Step 4: Tap the app you want to modify.

What you see next may depend on the app’s current permissions. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Allowed All The Time: Allow all the time/Allow only while using the app/Deny
  • Allowed Only While In Use: Allow only while using the app/Deny
  • Denied: Allow only while using the app/Deny

If the setting is set to Allow all the time, the app will persistently track your location whether it’s open or not. This is particularly useful for apps like Uber and Google Maps that need to track your location while navigating. If the setting is set to Allow only while using the app, location services will only be active when the app is open. If you want to completely turn off location services, select Deny.

Opt out of ads personalization

You can opt out of your mobile advertising ID (AdID) by using the following steps:

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app. Alternatively, swipe a finger down from the top to expand the shade and then tap the Cog icon.

Step 2: Tap Google.

Step 3: Tap Ads.

Step 4: Tap the Toggle next to Opt Out of Ads Personalization.

Prevent Google from storing your location

If you have a Google Account, you can prevent Google from storing your location, but keep in mind that the company has stockpiled a lot of your data already. For example, Google likely stores the exact date you visited a local subway station seven years ago.

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app. Alternatively, swipe a finger down from the top to expand the shade and then tap the Cog icon.

Step 2: Tap Google.

Step 3: Tap Manage Your Google Account.

Step 4: Tap the Account tab at the bottom if it isn’t selected by default.

Step 5: Tap the Data & Personalization category toward the top.

Step 4: Tap Location History.

Step 5: Tap the Toggle next to Location History to disable this service.

Step 6: Tap the People & Sharing category toward the top.

Step 7: Tap Manage Location Sharing.

Step 8: Remove individuals you don’t want to see your location.

Android 9.0 Pie

Because smartphone manufacturers take certain liberties with Android to tailor it to their device, Google’s platform is not uniformly available to every qualified handset. The example below references the LG V40 ThinQ running Android 9.0 Pie.

Turn off location sharing

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Tap General.

Step 3: Tap Lock Screen & Security.

Step 4: Tap Location.

Step 5: Tap App-Level Permissions.

Here, 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 — are available in some regions, letting you call or text an emergency number that will transmit your location to the police or first responders.

Why restrict your location data?

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

While many smartphone users have endured long-standing anxieties about privacy, there’s cause for concern in how these apps track you — to an alarming extent, we might add — each and every day.

A New York Times investigative report from 2019 drives concerns home. It revealed how every single smartphone owner’s whereabouts are constantly recorded and archived.

According to the report, the Times examined more than 50 billion recorded location pings pulled from a dataset leaked by one of the many anonymous companies that collect data from mobile apps. The data was collected from the phones of some 12 million Americans spanning 2016 and 2017.

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.”

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 knowing how you get tracked also lets you choose how and when to use your phone’s location services.

Stay vigilant

Controlling app location tracking is a challenge that all mobile phone users face now and into 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 tracked, 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 the bare minimum necessary for you to function.

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