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?

Mac Format - - APPLE CORE - writ­ten by ALEX BLAKE

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.

Ap­ple’s ri­vals

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.