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Smartphone location data

Tech Talk


April 13, 2019

Greg Cunningham

Everybody wants the location data in your smartphone. Your carrier, your phone's operating system, even the apps running on your phone. But why? Why does Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Google or Candy Crush care so much about where you are?

You ask the hard questions, don't you? Okay, here we go.

The carriers (Verizon, AT&T and the rest) need to know where your phone is so they don't drop your call if you're moving, and they don't need GPS to do this. Instead, carriers use the ID of the cell tower (Cell ID) your phone is currently connected to and make a map of the other cell towers near you. If your phone wanders off from the original tower, they use the map to "hand off" your call to the next tower. Nothing suspicious going on here, just hard-working carriers making sure you can make and take your phone calls, even while moving.

In Tehachapi, the operating system (OS) on your phone uses a combination of Cell ID, GPS and WiFi scanning to figure out where you are. The OS uses your location to make sure you get local results when you ask for a map, weather report, pizza or directions. Of course, if they know where you are, and share that information with, oh, I don't know, an ad network, you could see local ads show up on your phone. Which might or might not be okay with you.

Google famously sucks up everything it knows about you and sells your information, including your location, to advertisers. Apple handles your tracking information differently, but we'll get to that in a minute. Oh, and Google even got in trouble earlier this year for tracking people's location info even when tracking was turned off on the phone. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Yes, you can shut down location services on your phone - but things like maps, directions, weather, traffic and the rest won't work anymore. We can't have privacy and convenience.

If you decide you want to turn off location tracking on your phone, here's how:

• Android: Open Settings > Security & Location and turn the switch to Off.

• iPhone: Open Settings > Privacy and Location Services and turn the Location Services switch Off.

Now your phone won't know where it is. Except in one situation: Enhanced 911 will still work for 911 calls to let first responders know where you (and your phone) are, even if you can't tell them.

If you decide not to turn off location tracking, Google and Apple get access, at the operating system level, to your location information. It's somewhere in that license agreement we all agreed to without even reading. But there's good news: you can still turn location tracking on or off for lots of apps on your phone. You might want Zillow to know where you are but not Facebook, for example. Here's how:

• Android: Open Settings > Security & location > Location and turn the switch Off for any app you don't want to track your location.

• iPhone: Settings > Privacy > Location Services for a list of apps. Apps can be allowed to access location data Always, or While Using the App, or Never. The Never option turns off tracking completely and While Using the App only tracks you when the app is running.

Google stores your location data and shares the data across all its (many) products. They know who you are and where you've been. It's right there in their Privacy Policy, but we don't usually read those things.

Apple's Privacy Policy makes it clear that your location data is used to serve location-based ads and learn about the places you frequent. This data is shared across devices using the same iCloud account, but doesn't get stored by Apple. It stays on your device and in your iCloud account. Any location data Apple "sees" is anonymized and mixed in with other location data.

It all comes down to how much trust you have in the folks at Google and/or Apple. Is getting maps, directions and local suggestions worth having Google and Apple know where you are?

If you want to get rid of location tracking completely, it might be time to go back to an old RAZR flip phone or some other not-so-smart phone.

Probably too true

The only modern reason to have a landline is to use it to find your cell phone.

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at [email protected]


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