How your phone’s location is tracked and how to turn it off

Following the release of the new documentary film 2000 Mules, scouting is once again on the minds of Americans, but not necessarily for the right reasons. In the film, its creator Dinesh D’Souza attempts to shed light on a ballot collection operation in the 2020 election using location data purchased from data brokers.

However, according to a new position on Substack by Rob Graham, the creator of the BlackICE personal firewall, the data isn’t as accurate as the movie claims. In the post, Graham says that while data from your smartphone can be used to find your location within 30 feet, it’s not accurate enough to locate someone within six feet of their true location, for example. before a ballot box.

But while D’Souza’s allegations haven’t stood up to scrutiny, location tracking is a very real concern for your security and privacy, as two recent Vice stories revealed. Here’s what you need to know about location tracking and how to avoid being tracked.

Network Based vs Wi-Fi Based Tracking

cell phone tower

(Image credit: Nils Rasmusson/Pixabay)

There are many ways you can use your smartphone to track your location, including through the apps you install and use, but most of the time it’s done using cell towers or wireless networks.

No matter which mobile phone operator you are using, the location of your smartphone can be determined using its network infrastructure. The reason why network-based tracking is often used is because it is non-intrusive and no additional apps or services need to be installed on your device.

Seeing which cell towers you are closest to, someone trying to track you could use triangulation to determine your location. As soon as you turn on your smartphone, it automatically connects to your provider’s network, whether or not you interact with it. Even if you don’t make calls or send messages, your device will periodically connect to cell towers throughout your day. At the same time, GPS can also be used to help determine your location, but is more accurate in less crowded areas.

The most accurate way to track a user’s location in urban areas is through Wi-Fi. Your iPhone or Android smartphone repeatedly scans for the location of Wi-Fi hotspots that may tower can be used to triangulate the location of your device. That’s why some security experts recommend turning off your Wi-Fi when you’re on the go, although you can also use a vpn to help hide your true IP adress.

Location data is readily available for purchase

As with all data connected online, smartphone location data is readily available for purchase for legitimate reasons such as analytics as well as on the dark canvas for more nefarious purposes.

According to Graham, several companies create libraries for building smartphone apps where they insert code that logs users’ location data from apps built using them. Although some developers use these libraries for advertising purposes or to track this information themselves, sometimes they are not aware that their users’ location data is being collected.

Once the location data is collected, it is then sold to third parties who do some work to anonymize it, and then resell it themselves. Data brokers Also purchase location information directly from mobile carriers, but these datasets are compiled using data from their cell towers, as opposed to apps installed on your smartphone.

For example, The New York Times wrote an article in 2019 about a dataset containing over 50 billion location pings from over 12 million phones purchased from a location data company. By analyzing this data, The Times Privacy Project was able to track users’ movements over a period of months in 2016 and 2017 to see where they went and how long they stayed in each location.

How to Disable Location Tracking on Android Phones

The Android settings page on a Google Pixel

(Image credit: future)

The easiest way to turn off location tracking on android is to disable location in the Quick Settings panel above your notifications. Location can be toggled on or off, but you may need to tap the pencil icon at the bottom of the Quick Settings panel to add it if it’s not already there.

Similarly, you can open your phone’s Settings menu and scroll down where you’ll find location settings under security and privacy. Here you can disable location completely and see which apps have recently made location requests. Under Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning, you can disable both to make it harder to use these scans to track your device. You can also manage carrier location access permissions, but be aware that your mobile carrier can still access this information when 911 is dialed or a text message is sent to your phone number.

How to Disable Location Tracking on iPhone

Screenshots of iOS 15.2 on an iPhone 11 showing the Location Services menu

(Image credit: Apple)

Unlike Android, iOS Control center doesn’t give you the option to turn off location services, but if you’re short on time, you can always ask Siri to turn off iphone location tracking for you.

For those who prefer to do things on their own, you’ll want to open the Settings app on your iPhone, scroll down and tap on “Privacy”. Under the Privacy tab, you will find “Location Services” which can be turned on or off. From there, scroll down to the bottom of this menu and tap “System Services” where you’ll find all of the Apple services that use your phone’s location, including Important Locations. Tap “Disable” at the bottom to turn off significant locations, but you can also clear your significant locations history by tapping “Clear History” in the significant locations menu.

Disabling location services in individual apps

Although completely disabling location services on iOS or Android will prevent all apps on your smartphone from collecting location data, you will also not be able to use Google Maps or Apple Cardswhich can be very annoying.

For this reason, disabling location services on an app-by-app basis may be the best solution for most people. While this will not prevent you from being tracked from cell towers and Wi-Fi networks, it will prevent data brokers from obtaining some of your location data.

If you really want to avoid location tracking altogether, the only way to do that is to leave your smartphone at home, which is a big ask in today’s increasingly connected world. As always, convenience comes at a price.

About Ferdinand Caldwell

Check Also

A perspective to the future

Since the latter part of the 19e century automobiles were the preferred mode of transportation …