Plenty of popular smartphone apps can track your location and provide it to data brokers, which use it for things like tracking the popularity of businesses, The New York Times reported today in a chilling new deep dive.
The companies usually don’t get your name, and some take steps to anonymize the information, like trying to hide people’s exact home addresses when it can discern them in the data, but experts say it’s still often relatively easy to identify people based on their travels throughout the day. After all, you may well be the only person who commutes from your neighborhood to your office. And once someone knows which trips are yours, they can tell when you’re going to the doctor or a political rally and how often you’re stopping at the bar instead of the gym on the way home.
Unfortunately, The Times reports that app privacy policies can often be vague about exactly what they do with the location data they’re scooping up. But whether you’re using an iPhone or Android device, there are steps you can take in your phone settings to limit how much data they get in the first place.
One option is to simply turn off location tracking on your phone when you’re not actively using it to find yourself on a map, hail a cab, or some other particular purpose. On iOS, you’ll find this in the Settings app under “Privacy,” then “Location Services.” Turn “Location Services” off when you’re not using it and on when you are. Similarly, on Android phones, you can go to “Settings,” then to “Lock screen & security” and “Location” and toggle tracking on and off. You can generally also toggle location tracking on Android from the quick settings pulldown menu.
But turning location on and off throughout the day might be a pain if you genuinely use a lot of apps that need to know where you are. Another option is to limit which apps can access this data in the first place.
On iOS, you also can restrict apps to accessing your location while they’re actively running, which is probably a good option unless you have some specific reason you want an app to track your phone at all times. On that Location Services privacy menu, tap each app and change its setting to “While Using the App.” If you don’t want it tracking you at all, set the option to “Never.”
Android doesn’t let you restrict apps to tracking you only while running, but you can still turn off tracking by particular apps that don’t need to know your location. Which ones those are is ultimately a trade-off between privacy and convenience: Do you mind your weather app knowing your location or would you rather type in your zip code when you want a forecast? Tap “app-level permissions” in the Location security menu and use the sliders to turn off tracking by apps you want to restrict.