On Monday, the New York Times published a story that showed just how easy it is to identify and locate people through anonymized data that’s almost constantly being collected by apps on our phones.
While the information provided by the applications doesn’t always identify the user, the location tracking is often so precise that it can be used to pinpoint an individual, since it shows where the person is at night (presumably at home) and where they go throughout the day. The Times says many apps use or sell this information to help target ads and for other purposes.
In recent years, Apple and Google have made it easier to identify the applications that have access to your information, and to turn off the ability for those apps to see where you are. Sometimes this can stop an app from performing correctly: a mapping application would need to know your location to provide you accurate directions somewhere, for example. But others, like weather apps, don’t necessarily need to know where you are at all times. You can always just search for your current location.
The iPhone also has controls that allow apps to use your location only when you’re using a specific them, instead of all of the time.
I recently went through my iPhone and was surprised to see that I had a few applications that were set to always track my location, instead of as-needed. In this guide I’ll show you how to take more control of the apps that know where you are, and how to turn off those that never should require your location at all.
- Open Settings.
- Tap “Privacy.”
- Select “Location Services.”
- If you want to completely stop all apps from using your location, turn Location Services off.
- If you want to manage settings app by app, tap each app and choose “Never” or “While Using.” Make sure apps that don’t need your location, like most games, are set to “Never.” Other apps should be set to track your location only while you’re using them. There’s no reason an app needs to track you all the time.
I was surprised to see I had about 5 apps that were always using my location. They were all applications that need to know where I am when I’m using them, like Uber and Google Maps, but there’s no need for them to know where I am even when the app is closed. I changed the permissions over to “While Using.”
For others, like weather, I switched the permissions from “Always” to “Never,” since I can always manually search for the weather and don’t need my phone to know where I am.
Android phone makers often have custom menus, so the process for doing this might be different on a Google Pixel versus an Android phone made by Samsung or LG. But, it should be relatively similar across devices running Android P, the latest version of Android. Here’s how to stop apps from tracking you on Android:
- Open Settings
- Tap “Advanced.”
- Choose “App permissions.”
- Select “Location.”
- You’ll see a list of apps that have access to your location.
- Turn off the apps that you don’t think need to know where you are.
I didn’t find any suspicious apps trying to track me on Android, but I’m usually diligent about what I allow and what I don’t. The apps that had my permission for location included OpenTable, which shows nearby restaurants with reservation availability, and others that need to know where I am, like Uber and Lyft. Unlike the iPhone, Android only lets you turn permission on and off, instead of only while using the app.
Some apps do need to know your location in order to function properly, and it’s not always obvious which apps these are.
For instance, if you use DraftKings to place bets, then the app needs to confirm that you’re in a state where online sports betting is legal, like New Jersey.
But other apps, like the glasses-maker Warby Parker don’t really need to know where you are…unless you always need to find the nearest Warby Parker store, which seems unlikely.