CREDO Tips: Why your apps are tracking your location and how to limit them

Location tracking icon bouncing on an illustration of a city map

If you’re like most Americans, you reach for your phone within the first hour of waking up. And that impulse to check your phone will continue throughout the day. Americans spend about over four hours on their smartphones, with 90 percent of that time on apps.

And those apps know you. In fact, they might know details about your life that even you can’t recall. For example, do you remember where you were at 6:53 p.m. on Thursday, March 7? Your cell phone does.

And it’s happy to share that info with as many as 100 companies or more.

Cell phone app companies sell your location data to advertisers and other organizations

The buying and selling of location-based advertising are estimated to have brought in over $21 billion in 2018.

It might be uncomfortable to think that your cell phone behavior is being sold, but it also provides one of the most appreciated aspects of a digitally connected life – convenience. Selling that data is often how your phone is able to ping you about the best bowl of clam chowder in town when you’re near the restaurant that serves it.

Can your cell phone data identify who you are?

Location data is generally thought to be anonymous and not tied to any one person. And, to be fair, the location data apps collect is not tied to a person’s name or phone number. However, a New York Times article illustrated how location data can easily be used to identify individuals by anyone who has access to the raw data. That would likely be employees of the company and potentially hackers if those companies are comprised.

What sort of information can be obtained from reviewing your location data files?

There is a startling amount of information contained in your phone’s location files. For example, if you visited a therapist, your phone would have the date, time, and location of your visit. Frequent a marijuana dispensary? Yup, your phone contains that information too.

Table with top 10 downloaded iphone apps in 2018

Source: https://mashable.com/article/apple-most-popular-iphone-apps-2018/#obAycbBhKGq6

To get a great perspective on what your phone knows about you, check out Google Maps’ new feature called Timeline. Google says Timeline allows you to “rediscover the places you’ve been and the routes you’ve traveled in your timeline.” Theoretically, your Timeline is only visible to you, and you can delete places, days, or your history.  But a quick glimpse shows you that Google Maps has an intimate understanding of where you go, what you do, and what’s important to you.

You can turn location services off on both iPhone and Android devices, but it’s not always a straightforward process. Moreover, turning location services off can impede the performance of the app you are using.

How to limit location tracking

When you download an app, it usually asks for permission to access certain data or features on your phone. It might request access to your camera, contacts, microphone, location, or any other number of things. If it doesn’t make sense for the app to require that information, select “deny.” Many apps, particularly game apps, will download and function just fine without those permissions. However, some apps will not function properly unless you grant them full permission.

To check app permissions for apps that you’ve already downloaded, do the following:

iPhone:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Select Privacy
  3. Select Location Services

You can then choose to grant location tracking always, when you are using the app, or never.

Android:

  1. Select Settings
  2. Select Apps
  3. Tap the three dots on the upper right-hand corner of your screen
  4. Select App Permissions
  5. Select Location
  6. Deselect the apps you wish to rescind location tracking permissions from

The case for going with the location data flow

Cell phone apps make life’s chores and tasks effortless. Google maps not only provides directions but also alerts you to traffic conditions, searches for faster routes, and suggests where to stop for a bite to eat or a much-needed pit stop. Countless apps alert you to sales at shops you may be near or even provide coupons for the grocery store you happen to be shopping at. Those are real-time benefits you experience because of location tracking.

Ultimately, you need to determine what your priority is: convenience or privacy. As the old saying goes, you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. And so it is with cell phone apps’ location data, privacy, and convenience.