Your Smartphone and Location Data

Despite what you think, your smartphone constantly tracks your activity and your whereabouts, even when turned off.

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You've likely used location service on your smartphone before, from weather apps, local news apps, ridesharing apps, and even some social media apps. While sharing your location with these apps can give you more localised information, companies also profit from tracking your daily movements and invading your privacy. So what exactly is going on behind your smartphone? Who is watching, why are they watching, and how can you stop them?

Well, your smartphone is like a spy in your pocket. It knows where you've been, what time and for how long. Location services can track even the most minor details of your life, from your home and work address and your child's school to whether you've gone to the doctor, restaurants, political protests, or even church. Over time, it will have collected enough information to understand who you are as a person and what your daily routine looks like.

Two tech giants in the mobile ad space, Google and Facebook, have used your location data collected from their apps to develop better location-based advertising services. However, your location data means more than just targeted ads for other companies. Sharing your location provides companies with crucial information to continue running their services or for unrelated commercial purposes. The New York Times reported that The Weather Company was found analysing user location data for unrelated/ hedge fund managers. Venntel, a location data company, was also caught selling location data to the FBI, ICE, and American immigration enforcement.

To make matters worse, location data companies will argue that these practices are safe and legal. Most apps will have asked you to consent to their tracking services without outlining exactly how they plan to use your data. Companies claim that the data poses no real risk because it's anonymised and stored on secure servers. However, that promise has worn away with many companies undergoing public data breaches.

Despite what we think, we are constantly giving away bits of our data to these companies, with the location being a prominent one. While data protection laws are in place, they are not consistently enforced.

Practical Tips to Minimise Sharing Smartphone Location Data

Disable location services on your phone entirely.

  1. For Apple phones: Open Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services. You can choose when to share your location for individual apps or disable it altogether.
  2. For Android Phones: Open Settings -> Connections / Privacy (depending on your device) -> Location

Disabling your location may make some services work differently. For example, your weather app may not be able to detect the weather in your area. However, these apps will still work regardless. After all, there's no need for a weather app to know your location every second of the day.

Stop Google from tracking your location history.

Even though you've disabled your phone's location services, Google can still track your location through its many built-in apps and web browser. You can disable Google tracking you by:

  1. Visit and click on the Activity Controls tab.
  2. Turn off 'Location History, which will disable Google's location tracking services. You can also disable your web and app history and YouTube history, which has some ad personalisation.
  3. You can also delete all or some of your data collected by Google. Go back to the My Activity tab and click Delete Activity. You can choose to delete your data from a specific range of all time.

Disable your Mobile Advertising ID.

Each smartphone comes with a unique pseudo-anonymous I.D. built from the phone's operating system. Companies primarily use this I.D. to target mobile ads to their consumers. By disabling this I.D., you prevent companies from analysing your activity and targeting specific ads to you. Here is a complete guide on disabling your mobile advertising I.D. depending on your phone's brand and operating system.

Despite our best efforts, location tracking and the ad-tech industry will always find ways to track, monitor and analyse our mobile activities. Your mobile network will also ping your location even after disabling all your mobile location services. Unless you choose to have a phone that isn't connected to any network, it will be virtually impossible to get rid of all location tracking services on our phones.

The only way for us to be completely secure with our digital privacy is for the government to step in and decide how companies should use our data. Until then, we must stay cautious and take any necessary precautions to limit our data sharing.

Download our guide on Practical Tips to Minimise Sharing Smartphone Location Data:

More to Explore:

Here's further advice and resources to support parents and children on this issue:

Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy

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There’s a Multibillion-Dollar Market for Your Phone’s Location Data

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Privacy Breakdown of Mobile Phones

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