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Smartphone Location Tracking: How to Turn (Some of) It Off

Smartphone screen showing location history
Smartphone screen showing location history

Happy holidays! In just a few days, many of you will unbox new phones and tablets, sign in to your app store accounts, and start downloading new goodies to run on your shiny new devices.

Most of these apps will probably want to use your gadget’s Wi-Fi and GPS to get your location. And some will want to keep checking your location even when you’re not actively using them. Should you let them?

Like a lot of personal tech-policy issues, this one gets complicated quickly.

Google, Facebook, and Foursquare
If you use an Android phone, you’re asked early in the setup process to opt in to Google’s location tracking. I will bet the vast majority of you said that was fine. I did, too. If you’re not sure, or if you’ve changed your mind, you can check quickly enough. Open the Settings app; tap Location; tap Google Location Reporting.

Google says it asks for your location so it can provide more accurate and relevant info to you. Having benefited from this data in apps like Google Now — and understanding that Google advertisers only see me as part of a semi-anonymized crowd of other people with similar characteristics — I am OK with this.

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(Note that in iOS 8, you can stop Google Maps and any other app from checking your location when you’re not in the app: Open the Settings app; tap Privacy and then Location Services. Apple’s operating system will also remind you when an app first checks your location in the background.)

Map showing Google location history
Map showing Google location history

Google keeps a history of your locations and movements.

So Google gets a pass on always-on location monitoring. What about other services, like Facebook?

Facebook uses your persistent location data in its Nearby Friends feature. It also uses it for the Location History option. I get the logic behind these features, but the option to disable location tracking could be easier to see and change.

To make the change, you need to open the Facebook app, tap the More button, tap Nearby Friends, tap the gear icon to adjust its settings, and tap Location Settings. You can’t reach that Location History screen through the most prominent settings button.

Another app that makes heavy use of background location tracking, Foursquare, has made that its default behavior since its August relaunch. The idea here is to allow the app to surprise and delight you with relevant tips.

I’m not so keen on Foursquare making persistent tracking the default, but I give the company credit for making this feature easy to undo — in the app, go to your settings and then select Location Settings. Plus, turning off location tracking in one copy of the app turns it off in others, including future installs.

I know that because I decided to opt out myself. One reason was that I spend enough time in the app that I don’t feel I’d miss much by disabling that feature.

But I had other reasons to deny Foursquare my ongoing location.

Putting yourself on — or off — the map
Both Google and Facebook’s websites let you see the location records they’ve collected. To see your Google location history, log in to your Google account and then open this Location History link; in Facebook, go to your profile, click View Activity Log, click the More button below Comments, and then click Location History.

Those personalized, private maps can make for a fascinating read, showing both daily habits and broader travel patterns. (As a work-from-home type, these records prove that I don’t get out much.)

Google and Facebook let you see these records and also edit them. You can delete individual location records or clear the entire history. Google also provides a data-export option, in case you feel compelled to plot your whereabouts in another mapping app.

Foursquare has yet to offer those features. It also hasn’t gone as far as Facebook and Google in taking a public stance against government snooping: The Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Google and Facebook six out of six stars in its latest “Who Has Your Back” ranking, while Foursquare’s lack of a “transparency report” held it to only three.

What about the wireless carriers?
You don’t need a mapping app to locate the elephant in this particular room: the wireless carriers, who have to know where you are at all times to provide you with service — even if your phone can’t run apps at all.

They will turn this data over to the cops if they get a court order or a warrant first, but they won’t let you look at these records — let alone edit them. And you can’t even blame this on the peculiarities of the U.S. wireless market: Five years ago, a German politician had to sue Deutsche Telekom to get access to six months of his location data.

Maybe normal people don’t want to know how much their carrier knows about them. But the big four U.S. carriers as a group remain far behind many tech firms in even disclosing how curious the cops and courts have been about their customers’ locations.

AT&T and Verizon now include statistics about demands for customer location data from law-enforcement agencies (in the first half of 2014, AT&T fielded 30,886 and VzW “almost 15,950”), but Sprint and T-Mobile have yet to post transparency reports at all. Yes, in this area the otherwise-feisty T-Mobile looks positively mild mannered.

It reflects poorly on the wireless industry that carriers won’t give you access to your own location data, even though you pay them for the service that collects it. Google and Facebook may not be everybody’s favorite companies, but they do give you a vote in that data harvesting and the option to erase it.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.