How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020

Illustration for article titled How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020
Photo: Gizmodo

How phones track location is changing – if you’ve upgraded to the latest Android 10 or iOS 13 updates, you may have noticed more prompts around what apps can do with data about your whereabouts. Here’s what those new prompts mean, and how you can get your phone’s location tracking settings set up in a way that you’re comfortable with.

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How to Tweak Location Settings on iOS

First of all, iOS: with the arrival of iOS 13, the software now periodically reminds you about apps that are tracking your location non-stop, and lets you change the current settings, if you want to. You’ve got three options – to let the app log your location at any time, only when the app is actually running, or not at all.

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This setting is initially configured when the app requests your location for the first time – you’re able to allow it (in which case the app might then go on to request background location tracking too), to allow it for one time only (which means you’ll be prompted again the next time the app needs to know where you are), or to deny it.

Illustration for article titled How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Whenever these dialogs pop up, check the text just below the heading – this is where the app developer gets to make its case for requesting your location (to show you nearby restaurants or a local weather forecast or whatever). If you’re wondering why an app wants to know where you are, this should tell you.

These settings can be found at any time by going to the Settings app in iOS and tapping Privacy then Location Services. You’ll see a list of all the apps that have access to your location, and a choice of up to four options when you select any one of them: Never, Ask Next Time, While Using the App, and Always. Not every app will want to track your location round the clock, so that last option may not appear, but any app that you do set to Always will prompt those periodic reminders.

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Tap on System Services to control how various aspects of the mobile operating system can use your data. For example, you might want HomeKit and Find My iPhone to know your location, but not Apple Ads or the Significant Locations feature that Apple uses to work out which places are important to you.

Illustration for article titled How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020
Screenshot: Gizmodo
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From the same Location Services screen you can turn location tracking off on the iPhone entirely, via the toggle switch at the top. With this setting disabled, none of your apps will be able to know where your phone is, or make a record of it.

How to Tweak Location Settings on Android

Android has traditionally lagged behind iOS when it comes to the granularity of its location tracking settings, but it’s mostly caught up with Android 10. Here we’re looking at the options for the stock Pixel version of the OS, so the menus and labels you see might vary depending on which manufacturer made your phone.

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You don’t get the same reminder prompts that iOS throws up on Android, but you can set location tracking on or off for individual apps in much the same way: From Settings, tap Location then App permission to see which of your installed apps are interested in knowing where you’ve been and where you’re going to go in the future.

Apps are split into three categories, covering apps that can log your location all the time, apps that can log your location only while they’re actively being used, and apps that can’t log your location at all. Tap on any app to change the setting (not all of them will want to constantly access your location, but some will).

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Illustration for article titled How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Unfortunately, there’s no snappy summary explaining why Android apps are wanting to track your location, like there is in iOS, so it’s up to you to figure it out instead. Most of the time this will be fairly obvious, but if you’re in doubt, check with the app developer or on the app listing (or just turn off location tracking and see which bits of an app don’t work).

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To stop your phone from knowing where you are completely, turn off the Use location option at the time of the Location screen. This blocks all of your installed apps and Google from knowing your whereabouts.

Google being Google, it has a few extra settings here asking for permission to track your location over time—to recommend new places based on where you’ve already been, to remind you to rate and review places, to let you retrace your steps, and so on. If you don’t want this to happen, on the Location screen tap Advanced, then turn Google location history to Off.

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Remember apps have other ways of logging where you are in the world—from the IP address you’re connecting to the web through, to the places that you choose to leave a review for. Not all location tracking is covered by the phone settings we’ve mentioned, and the collection of at least some data is usually the price of using an app in the first place.

Illustration for article titled How Location Tracking Works on Your Phone in 2020
Screenshot: Gizmodo
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One of the ways that apps (and Apple and Google) can work out where you are is by scanning for wifi networks and Bluetooth devices. If those networks and devices are recognized, they can give your location away—say if you’re always signing into the wifi at a local coffee shop, for example.

Apple bundles this together in the general location settings on iOS and iPadOS, but that’s not the case on Android. To stop this sort of location tracking too, you need to open the Location screen from Android Settings, then tap Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning.

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From cab hailing to weather forecasting, having a read on your current location is so important to so much of what we do on our phones that many of us will be happy to take the privacy trade-off for the extra convenience. Ultimately it’s a case of how much you trust Apple, Google, and app developers to use that location data responsibly—but really the fewer apps that have access to it, the better.

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DISCUSSION

randomevents
RandomEvents

I’ve been curious to what “While using the app” actually means. Apple has a good explanation here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT203033. Basically it means while in the foreground (actively using) or background (open but using something else. In the case of the latter, the OS should give you a notification that the app is pinging for your location.