Having your smartphone report precisely where you are can be helpful. But having individual apps on your phone know your whereabouts can be closer to harmful – or, if the location history they collect gets sold to data brokers, outright hellish.
Now, the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision overturning Roe v. Wade has elevated fears that smartphone data could be exploited to track women seeking abortions.
Those concerns are grounded in reality: A December 2021 study by the Center for Democracy Technology, a Washington non-profit, found that law enforcement and intelligence agencies often buy personal information from data brokers instead of seeking court warrants for it.
Your smartphone has tools to limit data collection, but not all of them are obvious or easy.
Apple, which has long made privacy part of its iPhone sales pitch, added major location controls in 2019’s iOS 13 and 2020’s iOS 14.
Its first update lets you permit only “foreground” location gathering by an app – as in, while the app’s open on your phone’s screen – while the second lets you give an app only your “approximate” location.
The ability to block background location tracking can also prevent a great deal of potential mischief.
For instance, while you might want to have a socialmedia app like Facebook’s Instagram know where you are iwhen you share a photo, that app doesn’t need your GPS coordinates when you’ve turned your attention to other programs on your phone.
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But the approximatelocation optioncan defuse the privacy risks of apps that you do want working in the background – such as a weather app that can warn if it’s about to rain – or that include ads that target you by location.n the case of a weather app, a location blurred out to the nearest few miles should be good enough for forecasting purposes.
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If your own Android smartphone does not offer these features it may be because its manufacturer has not yet shipped Android 12 for that device.
Over all, Google continues to trail Apple in getting its operating-system updates widely distributed. That’s because phone vendors have to deliver those releases, while Google’s own Pixel phones don’t have that middleman hang-up.
Whether your phone runs Android or iOS, remember that your wireless carrier also knows your location in slightly less detail from its own cell towers – and keeps that data for anywhere from one to five years.
Putting your phone in airplane mode or turning it off entirely will stop that tracking, but nothing else will.
Apple or Google can’t push out any security patch to control that – only your elected officials can, and many have also spent years struggling to pass meaningful privacy legislation.
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, email Rob at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.