You Need to Check Your Phone’s Location Tracking Settings – Now

People everywhere have come to accept smartphones as indispensable tools for everyday personal and professional use. However, by saying “I Accept” to each end-user license agreement when you install a smartphone app, you may be opting into personal surveillance you would never have agreed to if were you aware it existed.

This post is part of the series Protecting Senior Citizens Online.

A New York Times opinion piece entitled “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy,” published December 19, 2019, presents an alarming revelation of how smartphone apps continuously track your movements. The article also discusses the location data companies that have emerged in recent years who buy and sell enormous amounts of user location data with other companies for profit and for other purposes that are mostly unknown.

This post discusses the alarming implications of always-on human location tracking and having private location data of senior citizens, children, or any smartphone user freely available to corporations to resell or reuse for any purpose. We’ll also discuss measures seniors and others can take to prevent sharing location data whenever possible, whether you are actively using your smartphone or not.

Apps we use every day ask if they can use your location. Tapping “Allow” might be turning your smartphone into a personal surveillance device.

Lots of “Tiny Brothers”

The article is part of the Times Opinion series “One Nation, Tracked.” The report describes how largely unregulated corporations traffic in vast amounts of smartphone location data that is anything but anonymous – despite assurances from tech companies (and laws requiring anonymity), and which is likely, not secure. 

The US has privacy laws that protect so-called personally identifying information (PII) that includes your date of birth, driver’s license number, social security number, and in some US states, even your ZIP code. However, no current laws exist that protect citizens from having their movements tracked on personal devices like smartphones and tablets.

Smartphone apps can actively track your movements along with millions of other users – likely without your knowledge. The app companies can, in turn, sell your location data to a tracking data company that can sell the more massive collective data set to whoever is willing to pay. 

William Staples, founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas, refers to the companies collecting vast amounts of location data as “Tiny Brothers, using a variety of data sponges to engage in everyday surveillance.”

“Privacy needs to start being seen as a human right.” Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, author of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

“One Nation, Tracked,” The New York Times, December 19, 2019.

Why does this matter?

Always-on surveillance is the stuff of dystopian novels and real-world police states. However, the convenience and utility of smartphones create the dynamic where the apps we install on our smartphones require us to opt-in to being tracked – without our realizing the implications – in exchange for using the app. Even apps that don’t need your location to function correctly may ask for permission to use your device’s location.

The Times quotes several experts, including Paul Ohm, a law professor and privacy researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, who stated that multiple studies have proven that claims of location data anonymity are “completely false.”

Screen capture of an illustration from The New York Times series “One Nation, Tracked” showing smartphone location data overlayed on an aerial photo of the Pentagon.

The Times’ series goes on to cite examples of how easily reporters with no technical expertise could quickly identify specific individuals based upon their location tracking data, where they went, and the routes they traveled. Some of the individuals identified included celebrities, government employees, military personnel, a senior Defense Department official and his wife, a DC-area entertainer, a software engineer, and the guests, visitors, and workers who frequented well-known locations or the homes of the famous.

“One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight. Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.”

“One Nation, Tracked,” The New York Times, December 19, 2019.

While companies claim to have secure data, there are numerous recent examples of major corporations experiencing massive data breaches where hackers or cyberwarriors from other countries steal troves of highly sensitive PII. Location data companies are no less vulnerable to hacking than a credit card company.

What can I do to protect my location data?

The Times has an excellent step-by-step guide with three things you can do to protect your phone and the privacy of your location data.

1. Stop Location Sharing With Apps

Follow these steps if you use an iPhone:

  1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services.
  2. For each app, tap on it and select your choice for allowing the app location access. Choices: Never, Ask Next Time, or While Using the App.
  3. To disable sharing your location in the background, go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh.
  4. Disable for all apps or individual apps.

Note that some apps might warn you that disabling location services prevents their operating correctly.

Follow these steps if you use an Android phone (steps for Android variants will differ):

  1. Go to Settings > Location.
  2. Tap See all to expand the list of apps.
  3. Tap each app and select your choice for allowing the app location access. Choices: Allow all the time, Allow only while using the app, Deny.

2. Disable Your Mobile ID

Each device has a mobile advertising ID that is associated with your online activity. In other words, a company with access to your mobile data can correlate your location with your online activities, further enabling their ability to create a “customer journey” or profile of your browsing and potentially your shopping habits, too.

Follow these steps if you use an iPhone:

  1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising.
  2. Enable Limit Ad Tracking.

You can also optionally reset your Advertising Identifier from the same screen. This step replaces your advertising ID with a new random number.

Follow these steps if you use an Android phone (steps for Android variants will differ):

  1. Go to Settings > Google > Ads.
  2. Enable Opt out of Ads Personalization.

You can optionally reset your advertising ID from the same screen. This step replaces your advertising ID with a new random number.

3. Disallow Google from Storing Your Location

If you have a Google account, you can disable location tracking for your phone, and any other location-enabled devices logged in to your Google account. Clicking the link above may require you to log in to your Google account. Disabling location tracking for your account will disable this setting on all connected devices.

Be Aware

Location tracking is hard to avoid. You may need to periodically repeat step one above to make sure any new apps you’ve installed are not using your location. Taking the steps outlined above is necessary to protect the privacy of children, senior citizens, or anyone who wants to prevent unwanted sharing of their location data. Citizens do not need their whereabouts tracked, the location data stored, and then sold by corporations – while also being vulnerable to hacking.

Prime of Life Tech is a Denver-area technical support provider for people in the prime of life. Seniors seeking independent living options often want to use today’s technology for interacting with family and friends and managing personal affairs. Contact Patrick Baker at Prime of Life Tech for help with your technology. You can also call 720-319-7145.

Copyright © 2019 Patrick M. Baker, Prime of Life Tech

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