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Controlling Your Location Data on Mobile Devices

Leaking your location is a common and concerning privacy problem. Some of these mobile device leaks are very hard to avoid, but you can control many of them – with a little energy and effort.

First, we’ll go through how your mobile device gives away your location data and then talk about how to remedy it.

Mobile service provider

If you want to use a mobile phone, there’s not much you can do to keep your location data private. Your cell phone is constantly sending location data to cell towers, which your mobile service providers pick up. While they say it’s necessary to collect this information, they also may be selling it. Currently there are lawsuits underway, so hopefully this will be banned soon.

The bottom line for now: if you’re just carrying a phone, you’re broadcasting your location.

Apps

This is the biggest culprit, in terms of volume of leaks and range of companies that get access. A huge percentage of the apps you download need or request your location, and if they get it you have no idea what they’re really doing with it. They might only use it to enable their service to work. Or they could be selling the data to third party advertisers and aggregators – that is exceedingly common, especially from smaller and less financially secure app developers.

The good news is that you have to grant access to your location data to an app fairly specifically. And there is some level of granularity in terms of what you may or may not allow.

When you download or use an app, you’re usually prompted with a request for the app to access your location. See examples below.

You might blindly accept these permissions (and most permissions) because you want to start using the app, but these permissions are actually very important to pay attention to. Depending on the app, these permissions are absolutely necessary — you might need a GPS app to guide you somewhere, a dating app to find that hottie near you, or that app to recommend the latest and greatest restaurant– but when you start paying attention, you might be surprised at the kinds of apps that are tracking your location data.

Does that free calculator or flashlight app need your location data? What about that free game app?

It’s a good rule of thumb to be careful with free apps when it comes to personal privacy. They’re usually making money via advertisements or by selling your personal data. The New York Times published an investigative piece at the end of 2018 detailing how many of these apps were profiting off of your precise location data.

One example of a sports app is quite telling – the app asked users to share location data so it could recommend relevant teams and players, but the location data was passed onto “16 advertising and location companies”.

Fortunately, you now have the option to keep location tracking on only while an app is running, limiting how much data is leaking. We’ll show you how a little later in the article.

Social Media

Do you have any of the following apps installed on your device?

  • Facebook
  • Snapchat
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn

The answer is (probably) yes. So chances are, social media giants are tracking your location data along with a lot more, but we’ll focus on location data here.

Facebook, notorious for their lack of privacy, takes the bulk of the blame here. Facebook was found to collect location data even if the app wasn’t in use, an option Android users couldn’t turn off until earlier this year. Facebook was also testing location history on Instagram, for their own advertising purposes.

Apps that connect to Facebook are willing to share your data with the social media giant so you may want to be careful before you choose the ‘log-in with Facebook’ option next time you download an app.

LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, also gives you the option to share location data if you’re trying to find users near you. It’s called the ‘Find nearby’ feature and only works with other users that have the option turned on. LinkedIn assures users that the information isn’t tracked, monitored, or stored.

You should always proceed social media with some caution when it comes to data privacy. These are free services that rely on advertising to make money – that advertising money often comes from users’ data so be aware that your location data is likely a prime target for these companies.

The devices themselves

Here’s where we have to make some distinctions between Apple and Android devices.

Apple devices

Apple does takes a different approach to privacy, mostly because they make their money in a different way. As a result, they exhibit much better policies and attitudes about privacy than the other big-tech companies (and this is a very good thing) This applies to location data too.

In a webpage dedicated to location history and privacy, Apple details how and what they use location data for, which includes the ‘Popular near me’ feature, location-based Apple ads, suggestions, and more. However, the location data is kept on each device, not on Apple’s servers – which essentially keeps the data completely private.

You may recall that the FBI clashed with Apple around the time of the San Bernardino attack – because Apple devices are encrypted such that without a way to unlock the phone, any data in the device is essentially inaccessible, even the FBI couldn’t get to the phone’s location history.

Now, there is an important caveat to mention here. If you use iCloud pretty heavily, then your data (not necessarily your location data) isn’t stored on your device, which makes for a privacy risk.

That being said, your location data is still being tracked and monitored for various uses by Apple. Check out Significant Locations in your iPhone for a good spook.

Before you freak out, we need to be clear about this. Significant locations may ‘feel’ creepy and you might not want Apple tracking that data and information. If that’s the case, you should turn it off. However, as we mentioned, this information is kept secure on your device so only someone with access to your device can see this information. This is a much better alternative to say, Google, who keeps your location history as part of your Google account in their own servers. Let’s consider Google and Android now.

Android devices

Android (owned by Google), doesn’t have the same attitude concerning your location data (though they recently announced an Incognito mode was coming in the near future). Like Apple, Google tracks your location data but, notably important, doesn’t store the information on your device. The location data is used for better personalized ads (because what does society need? BETTER ADS), to improve Google-owned products, and more.

And unlike Apple, Google is willing to work with law enforcement and give up your location data. The New York Times reported that law enforcement has used Sensorvault, a tool developed by Google that allows law enforcement to access users’ location data.

The breadth and scope of Google’s Sensorvault has even led Congress to take actions in order to further scrutinize the use of the tool and how Google has communicated the fact that this data is being used in this way.

How to reduce the amount of location data leaking from your mobile devices

Fortunately, there are some ways to take back some of your data and ensures your device isn’t freely giving away the location data.

Take stock of your current (and future) apps

If you go to the app section of your settings on both Android and Apple devices, you can see which apps are tracking your location data and toggle the settings on/off. With Apple devices, you can have apps only track location data when you’re running the app.

There have been screenshots of an update to Android’s OS that allows for improved app permissions but that won’t come until late 2019.

Be mindful of any new apps you download. If they ask to track your location data, ask yourself why they need it. If you can’t think of a good reason, either turn off the permission or consider a new app.

Limit your social media use

This one might be difficult depending on your lifestyle but given Facebook’s less-than-stellar reputation for personal privacy, it’s hard to say whether toggling app permissions off will actually stop Facebook from collecting your location data.

We recommend deleting social media apps from your mobile device for the sake of privacy and potentially your mindset. If you can’t part with them too long, then try to sever connections between your apps and your social media accounts and log off the accounts on your phone whenever possible.

What’s the tradeoff?

It depends. Maybe you’re not bothered by your phone knowing your location at every step. Maybe you do want that free app, or you like the convenience of apps recommending a restaurant.

Whatever you prefer, we want to give you this information so you can take control of how your share your data. With knowledge, you now have the freedom to make your choice.

Images courtesy of Apple.com, addictivetips.com, and androidtutorialmagic.wordpress.com

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