Having your own smartphone report wherever you are can come in handy. But having individual apps on your phone that know where you are could be closer to harm – or if the location history they collect is sold to data brokers, it would be absolutely hell.
Now, the June 24 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has heightened concerns that smartphone data could be used to track women seeking abortions.
These concerns are rooted in reality: A December 2021 study by the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington nonprofit, found that law enforcement and intelligence agencies often purchase personal information from data brokers rather than seek court orders over it.
How do you prevent your phone from selling your data?
Your smartphone has tools to limit data collection, but not all of them are straightforward or easy.
Apple, which has always made privacy a part of its iPhone sales offering, added key location controls in iOS 13 and 2020 for iOS 14.
The first update lets you allow only “forward” location to be collected by the app – as in, while the app is open on your phone screen – while the second lets you give the app only your “approximate” location.
The ability to block location tracking in the background can also prevent a great deal of potential harm.
For example, while you might want a social media app like Facebook’s Instagram that knows where you are when you share a photo, this app doesn’t need your GPS coordinates when you shift your attention to other programs on your phone.
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Is it possible to track the location when the phone is off?
But the approximate location option can defuse the privacy risks of apps that want to run in the background — like a weather app that can warn if it’s about to rain — or include ads that target you by location. In the case of a weather application, the unclear location to the nearest few miles should be good enough for forecasting purposes.
To adjust these settings in iOS, open the Settings app, tap Privacy, then Location Services to see a list of apps that can get your location all the time, and you can also see when you use them or if you use them at all. Then you just remove any “exact location” privileges.
Google has been slower to add similar features to its Android smartphone platform, but the location privacy controls it added with the release of Android 12 of 2021 match those in iOS.
To check them, open the Settings app and tap Location. This screen will show the apps that recently acquired your location. To see all people who have full-time access to the site in exchange for front-site access only, tap App Site Permissions. Then remove any permissions giving your exact coordinates.
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How do I hide my location without turning it off?
If your Android smartphone does not offer these features, it may be because the manufacturer has not yet shipped Android 12 for this device.
In general, Google continues to follow Apple in distributing OS updates on a large scale. That’s because phone vendors have to offer these versions, while Google’s Pixel phones don’t have this medium.
Whether your phone is on Android or iOS, remember that your wireless carrier also knows your location in slightly less detail than their cell towers — and keeps that data for anywhere from one to five years.
Does Airplane Mode hide my location?
Putting your phone in Airplane mode or turning it off completely will stop this tracking, but nothing else will.
Neither Apple nor Google can push any security patch to get this under control — only your elected officials can, and many have also spent years struggling to pass meaningful privacy legislation.
Rob Pegoraro is a technical writer based in Washington, D.C. To send a technical question, email Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Tweet embed.
The opinions and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of USA TODAY.