How does Apple track your location?
Apple has long been upheld as a privacy stalwart, but it still collects location data – so what does it do with it?
These days, Apple has a reputation for its strength on privacy issues, especially when it comes to the kind of data it tracks about you.
In fact, Tim Cook has commented in the past that Apple does not collect personal data because it simply isn’t interested in it, telling American journalist Charlie Rose in one interview: “Our business is not based on having information about you. You’re not our product.”
Apple hasn’t always run such a tight ship when it comes to privacy, though. In early 2011 it faced one of the first mobile privacy scandals when it was discovered that iPhones had inadvertently been storing a year’s worth of their owners’ precise location data, unencrypted, on the phones.
There was nothing sly or underhanded about this – Apple wasn’t siphoning off the data in order to send you targeted adverts – it was a simple case of data leakage. Apple claimed it was a bug and that iPhones were only meant to store seven days’ worth of data, and promptly released a patch and encrypted the information it collected.
But regardless of the tech giant’s intentions, the story struck a nerve – and showed how important location privacy was to Apple users. These days we’re much more used to sharing our data, and perhaps today this scandal wouldn’t even be a story. But back in 2011, it was huge news.
Seven years on from that, what has changed? How does Apple track your location now? And what does it use this information for?
Location, location, location
Most modern smartphones rely heavily on location data, iPhones included. From giving you accurate directions to working out where you took a photo, your phone keeps tabs on where you go and uses this knowledge almost every day, even in ways that you might not be aware of.
For example, iOS provides a service called Significant Locations. This keeps track of the places you’ve visited recently, how often you went there and when you did so. This data is then used to improve features like Memories in the Photos app, centred on your frequently visited places, or to create better routing to your favourite locations in Apple Maps. The data is encrypted end-to-end between your iCloud-connected devices, and is not shared by Apple without your consent.
Plenty of other Apple services make use of your location. Popular Near Me sends encrypted
info about your app usage (where and when you buy or use apps) to Apple so that locationrelevant apps can be suggested to you. Apple will take note of your whereabouts in order to send you alerts, such as reminding you to call a friend when you arrive at an agreedupon meeting place. And HomeKit may make use of your location, such as to automatically turn on your lights when you arrive home (or come within a certain distance of it).
There are some location services in iOS that cannot be turned off. One of them is the way Apple collects data on traffic. If you are moving or going somewhere (such as in a car), your iOS device will transmit info such as your GPS location and speed to Apple. All of this data is anonymous and encrypted, and is used to augment Apple’s “crowd-sourced road traffic database”, according to the company.
In other areas, though, Apple has given more power to its customers. In iOS 11, the company tweaked its Location Services settings so that app developers had to give you an option to turn off location tracking ‘while using the app’. Previously, developers could simply give you two choices: to never allow location tracking, or to always allow it. Many apps would stop working if this tracking was disabled, meaning you often didn’t have much of a real choice.
Despite Apple’s good track record, its rivals haven’t always performed as well when it comes to protecting your location privacy. In November 2017, Yale University’s Privacy Lab announced that, of the more than 300 Android apps analysed by French research firm Exodus Privacy, over 75% contained signatures of hidden trackers. These trackers were mainly used for advertising, behavioural analytics and location tracking. Privacy Lab further noted that it’s possible that some of the apps labelled as ‘clean’ actually contained undiscovered or unknown trackers. The study did not focus on iOS, but there are other indications that Android may be less secure when it comes to your location data.
For example, it was found in August 2018 that Google’s apps continued to track users even when they turned off location services –
There are certain location services in iOS that cannot be turned off
users had to disable a setting called ‘Web and App Activity’ as well as location history in order to completely opt out of Google’s location-tracking features. Moreover, a research paper from Vanderbilt University found that a dormant Android phone with Chrome active in the background sent location information to Google 340 times in a 24-hour period.
A dormant iOS device with Safari running in the background, in contrast, did not send any information to Apple. The discrepancy is partially explained by Google’s business model: it needs your location data in order to sell more adverts; Apple, on the other hand, makes its money through selling products. When money is removed from the equation, deciding not to track you as much as possible is a lot easier for Apple than it is for Google.
How to take control
Apple gives you various ways to take control over how your location data is used and shared on your devices. Most of Apple’s location settings are stored, naturally, in Settings > Privacy > Location Services. From here you can completely disable all location services, or tailor them on a per-app basis. You can allow apps to use your location ‘always’, ‘while using the app’ or ‘never’ (although some apps only give you a choice between the latter two options).
Some apps will have an arrow next to their location permission status, which indicates they may have used your location info recently. A hollow purple arrow shows that an app may use your location if certain conditions are met. A filled purple arrow indicates that an app recently used your location, while a filled grey arrow shows that an app used your location in the last 24 hours.
At the bottom of the Location Services page is a System Services submenu. Within this you can decide whether Apple services such as Wi-Fi Calling, Find My iPhone, location-based suggestions and more can use your location. There is also an option to display an icon in your iOS device’s status bar when an Apple service requests your location.
On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy. From here, you can disable location services altogether or just for certain apps. As on iOS, an arrow indicates an app has used your location data recently (although there’s only one type of arrow – a solid black one showing that an app has used your location in the past 24 hours).
Elsewhere, you can decide whether your Mac sets your time zone automatically using your location in the Date & Time > Time Zone preferences pane. In Safari, certain websites may ask to use your location; you can choose to allow or deny them on a case-by-case basis, or disable all such requests to avoid being prompted. Go to Safari > Preferences > Websites and select Location in the list on the left. Here, you can tell Safari to always allow or deny location requests from each website that’s among your currently open tabs, or have Safari ask you on each visit. You can also tell Safari to always allow, deny or ask when you visit other websites.
Just be aware that turning Apple’s location services off could have an impact on the apps and features you use on your devices. For example, location-based suggestions are used in the Maps Nearby widget in iOS’s Today view to show places you might want to visit. Services in the Product Improvement section of Location Services – like iPhone Analytics and Routing & Traffic – are used to improve future iPhones and Apple software. And you may not have used Emergency Calls & SOS yet, but restricting its access to your location could cause problems if you ever do need it.
Also, turning off Apple’s location services doesn’t mean you won’t be tracked by third parties, which can use things like your IP address to work out roughly where you are.
It’s plain that Apple uses your location for a lot of purposes, but also that it gives you ways to control how that information is used and shared. By knowing what the company uses and how, you’re better placed to keep your privacy safe.
Turning off Apple’s location services doesn’t mean you won’t be tracked by third parties
In Safari, you can choose whether websites can access your location.
Turning location services off means losing out on handy info, like nearby places of interest.