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Your Smartphone Knows Where You’ve Been

How to reduce the ways your devices can track your location

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As we go about our errands and excursions, you might not realize you’re toting along the 21st century version of Big Brother.

Your smartphone may not only be capturing your location data but also potentially harvesting it and sharing it with advertisers or law enforcement. If your account or a company’s computers are hacked, crooks bent on stealing your identity could exploit the leaked data.

For sure, you can benefit when your phone knows where you are. Your phone can help you avoid traffic, discover a nearby eatery, get up-to-the minute local weather or recover a lost phone. But privacy advocates worry about darker outcomes.

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“One of the disturbing realities of modern technology is that increasingly, everywhere we go, our phones, cars and devices are logging our location,” says lawyer Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the New York-based civil rights group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). It's “a creepy way for companies to sell us their products, [and] increasingly, a way for the police, IRS and immigration authorities to track our movements.”

They do this through court orders, digital dragnets known as geofencing, and sometimes by purchasing the data, Cahn says.

“Not only is location data being used for the purposes of criminal prosecution or liability in legal cases, but also just for targeted advertising, which might be harmful to a particular person,” says Bill Budington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The staff technologist at the San Francisco advocacy group says someone visiting an alcoholic treatment center might receive embarrassing or unwanted ads for alcoholic products.

Health privacy rules don’t extend to phones

What’s more, federal regulations that have sprung from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) generally don't protect the privacy or security of your health information when accessed through or stored on your personal cellphones or tablets, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For some, that prospect took on added urgency after the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and the idea that people could be tracked crossing state lines to have a procedure deemed illegal in their home states.

Most folks want to protect their privacy under any circumstances. Almost 9 out of 10 people 55 and older are concerned about the safety and privacy of their personal data, compared with nearly 8 out of 10 people ages 18 to 34, according to an Ipsos poll of 4,000 U.S. adults conducted April 1 to 7. 

In a July 1 blog post, a Google senior vice president, Jen Fitzpatrick, wrote that her company is taking some steps to make location data more private. If Google detects that people visit some “particularly personal” medical facilities — including “counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight-loss clinics [and] cosmetic surgery clinics” — it will delete their location history entries “soon after they visit” such places.

Location History is an account setting that the Alphabet-owned company says is turned off by default. But when it’s on and you sign in to your Google account, you can view the places where you’ve visited — for example, in a Google Maps Timeline. Through auto-delete controls, you can have Google automatically and continuously delete your location history — as well as search, voice and YouTube activity data — after three months or 18 months. 

Some want expansion of privacy protections

Critics want Google to go further, given the sheer magnitude of search data it amasses on all of us.

“Rather than simply labeling a few sites as sensitive … Google should be treating all of our movements as sensitive,” Cahn says. “We shouldn’t make civil rights and democracy an opt-in exercise.”

Fitzpatrick didn’t specify how Google’s systems will determine that a person has visited one of these health facilities. Nor did she say what might be done to protect location data captured in the general vicinity of the place or when the person is in transit.

“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely,” Fitzpatrick blogged. “We take into account the privacy and security expectations of people using our products. And we notify people when we comply with government demands, unless we’re prohibited from doing so or lives are at stake — such as in an emergency situation.”

For its part, Apple doesn’t retain a history of where you search or have been, and the data that Apple Maps collects while you use the app — including search terms, navigation routing and traffic information — is associated with random identifiers, not your Apple ID. The company says it doesn’t store location data on its servers in a way that's accessible to Apple, and it's unable to provide location data in response to geofence warrants.

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7 ways to shrink a phone’s digital footprints

On either an iPhone or Android handset, you can't eliminate your digital footprints entirely. Location information is collected through a combination of sources, including GPS, mobile networks, sensors and Wi-Fi. Your wireless carrier can track your location, as can third-party apps under certain circumstances.

If you have a low-tech flip phone or a basic (aka “dumb”) cellphone, you also might not be immune from location tracking. Some have the service built in. Others offer it as an extra-cost feature to make it easy to locate the phone or, in the case of someone with memory problems, to locate the person carrying the phone. 

“Privacy is one size fits none,” Cahn says. Ultimately, how most people feel about location tracking in smartphones boils down to personal sensibilities. Here are seven steps you can take to tailor how your location information is handled.

1. Weed out your apps

“I don’t install an app unless I really need it,” says Christopher Budd, senior manager of threat research at British-based Sophos. He'll keep apps on his device only for as long as he needs them. For example, Budd will delete an airline app once he’s done with his flight.

In general, be careful about apps you download and keep around. The “cost” associated with a free app from an obscure developer is that the developer may be peddling your location information to a data broker.

2. Limit how an app monitors your location

Not every app needs to know where you are — and certainly not at all times. On iPhones and Android devices, you can refuse to let an app monitor your location or deny permission when you’re not actively using the app.

“In the security and privacy world, we only have this idea of ‘least privilege,’ meaning you want to give things only as much privilege as they need to get the job done, and no more,” Budd says.

On an Android phone such as the Pixel 7 Pro — Android settings differ by version and device — launch Settings | Location | App Location Permissions. You’ll see a list of apps on the device segregated by “Allowed only while using the app,” “Ask every time” or “Don't allow.” Tap an app listing to change such access permissions.

If you're uncomfortable having any apps or services access your whereabouts, tap the Use Location switch in Settings to turn it off. Even so, Google says your “device location may still be sent to emergency responders when you call or text an emergency number.”

On an iPhone, go to Settings | Privacy | Location Services. Tap an app listing and, under Allow Location Access, choose from Never, Ask Next Time or When I Share or While Using the App.

The iPhone also has an across-the-board location kill switch. Go to Settings | Location Services | Turn Off. Personalized location services settings for apps will be temporarily restored if you used the Find My app function to enable Lost Mode, Apple says.

3. Choose ‘approximate’ location

“Location, location, location,” is a well-worn real estate cliché. Your phone makes a distinction between your approximate and precise location.

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For example, within location settings for an app on your smartphone, you can allow an app to see your “precise” location, which an Uber or Lyft driver might require to pick you up at your home address. An “approximate” location — within about 10 square miles — allows you to find nearby restaurants or check the local weather without giving out more information than needed.

IPhones have a Precise Location switch you can toggle off and on with each app in Settings’ Location Services. Android phones have a similar “Use precise location” switch within apps.

4. Curb ‘significant’ locations

IPhones also have a system setting called Significant Locations. When enabled, your iPhone and other iCloud-connected devices can discover the places considered “significant,” or where you spend a lot of time, to assist within apps, such as factoring in traffic in Maps routing or generating Memories in the Photos app.

Apple says data collected about a significant location includes the address users traveled to, when they traveled there, how long they stayed, the amount of time spent commuting, and whether users arrived via car, on foot and so on. The data is fully encrypted, it’s not shared with third parties and Apple can’t read it, the company says.

You can’t read most of your significant locations either, since Apple’s update to iOS 15 in fall 2021. You can see the number of records your phone has collected, but only the most recent ones (or close to it) will display.

To turn it off, go to Settings | Privacy & Security | Location Services, and then scroll down to System Services | Significant Locations. You’ll have to provide your Face ID or passcode next, even though you’re already logged on. Then tap the Significant Locations switch to turn it gray. You can also tap Clear History to do just that.

5. Read privacy policies

Few people read privacy policies, which are often several screens of legalese. If a developer writes a policy that’s clear and transparent, you may be more comfortable sharing your location. Through a "privacy nutrition label," Apple requires app developers to disclose how they're collecting and using your location and other data on the product pages in the App Store.

6. Check with your carrier

Wireless carriers have their own policies about how your personal data is handled and potentially used in targeting advertising. Visit your carrier’s app or website to exert your own controls on how the data may be used and shared.

7. Leave your phone at home

It may seem harsh and possibly unrealistic, but you may decide the best way to camouflage your location is to leave your phone behind. “If you don’t have the device with you, it can’t be tracked,” Budd says.

This story, originally published July 11, 2022, has been updated to reflect new features and minor changes in setting prompts.

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