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November 12, 2021

How to Use Location Services Safely

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Location services are great. They help you navigate the world through maps, keep you safe by alerting emergency first responders to your location, and keep you connected with friends, family and the world at large. But by being able to track your location at any given time, location services also pose a threat to your privacy. Keep reading to learn how to protect against that threat. Here are the things you should know:

  • What are location services?
  • What are the risks of location services?
  • Who can use location data?
  • How can you protect your data?

What are Location Services?

If you use a smartphone, it probably has built-in GPS. The same goes for most tablets, fitness trackers, smart speakers, and more. The GPS capabilities of these devices allow the software that runs them to provide different services, based on your geographical information. For example, iPhone users can ask Siri (the smart-assistant built in to each phone) for restaurants near them. The results Siri provides are based on your geographic location.

Some devices may also use different techniques to learn your relative location. These techniques include:

  • Control-plane locating, in which a mobile phone provider estimates the location of a connected device by timing the radio signal delay between the device and the nearest cell tower. This method is slow and outdated, and often used for emergencies where GPS positioning is unavailable or not working.
  • Near-field technology. Some devices may also collect location data about you based on the other devices you come into proximity with, such as Bluetooth.

What are Some of the Services Offered by Location Data?

By being able to access your location data, your devices can provide an enormous range of services, some of which you may not have considered before. The services offered by location data include:

  • Maps. Most smartphones and tablets come with map apps you can use when navigating just about anywhere in the world. They can take your current location and give you a route to somewhere new, estimate how long it will take you to get there, and even warn you of anticipated delays. This ability is powered by location services.
  • Finding local businesses. Along with map capabilities, location services can help you find local businesses in specific categories, like restaurants, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, movie theatres and showtimes, and more.
  • Health data. If you use a fitness tracker, there’s a good possibility that it uses location services to keep track of where you go during the day. This helps the tracker estimate how many steps you’ve taken along which routes. It also helps the tracker estimate how fast you were moving (for example, walking versus biking versus driving) to get an idea of the types of exercise you get during the day.
  • Checking in online. If you want to tell friends, family, and social media contacts where you are, many social media platforms allow you to check in at specific locations. 
  • Advertising. One of the most frequent, and most annoying, uses of your location data is done as advertising. Companies can take information about your location and use it to target you with tailored ads.

What are the Risks of Location Data?

Location-based services are undeniably convenient. When was the last time you used a physical, paper map to find your way? Unfortunately, there are some staggeringly serious risks to your privacy and safety that are posed by location services. These are some of the major risks you should be wary of:

  • Stalking
  • Robbery
  • Identity breaches
  • Advertising 

Stalking

Typically, your phone is tracking your location at all times. But what happens if it starts broadcasting that information to others? Or, perhaps, someone obtains access to that data through illicit means. It potentially opens you up to the risk of stalking from someone who means you harm or has an unhealthy fixation with you. In 2017, Snapchat came under fire for the introduction of the SnapMaps feature, which allowed users to share their real-time location with others. Safety experts sounded the alarm that the feature could enable stalking, bullying, or other abusive behaviour.

Robbery

You’re on vacation in Europe. It’s awesome, and you want everyone to know you’re having such a good time, so you share your location on your social media accounts. Now everyone knows you’re eating pasta and gelato in Italy, walking the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and drinking beer in Germany. They also know your house is empty, making it the prime target for a robbery.

Thanks to location-based services, gone are the days when robbers had to carefully case a place before robbing it; they can simply watch where you go from the comfort of their couch and when you’re on the move, so are they.

Identity Breaches

Most companies that collect location information will tell you the same thing: they only collect your location, but remove any personal information that could be used to identify you. While this might be true on the surface, one article by the New York Times shows that even depersonalized data can become very personal. For example, your location data can be used to identify where you live and work, based on the amount of time you spend in those locations. From there, it isn’t difficult to discover your identity based on public records and social media. 

Location data can also be used to track you during your typical commute, which potentially enables stalking. It can pinpoint the businesses and other establishments you frequent based on how often you visit them, which can put you at risk too. For example, knowing you visit your doctor’s office once a week may indicate health issues and could be used by an insurance provider to deny you coverage. Visiting a gay bar frequently could potentially out someone about their sexuality, which can become potentially dangerous for that person.

Even data scrubbed of your name can still be pinned to you.

Advertising

One would hope that the location data gathered by device manufacturers would stay in their hands, for their use only. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case. Many of the companies who first collect your data then sell it to third parties, who can use it to advertise to you, for example.

Who Can Use Your Location Data?

Your location data is valuable to just about everyone, whether or not you realize it. In fact, some of the groups who can benefit from learning your location data might surprise you. Let’s go through who can use your location information for unsafe reasons:

  • Corporations
  • Governments
  • Friends and family
  • Strangers
  • Work

Corporations

Sharing your location may seem innocuous at first but the information provided to corporations who have access to that data can actually be very compromising. Location services tell organizations from retail stores to social media platforms where you spend your time and for how long. In some cases, they may even know who you spend time with. All of that information can be used to track your habits, spending patterns, interests and more. In turn, they can tailor ads to you, and build a profile around your life.

Governments

Concerns have been brought up surrounding government use of your data. Many watchdog groups are concerned that governments and similar agencies (such as the police) may use citizen location data without proper permissions to monitor them without consent.

Friends and Family

In some cases, location sharing with family and friends is great. You can share fun details about your life, and check in as “safe” in emergency situations. But this sharing can also become a problem, especially in the case of domestic disputes where one party intends to hurt the other and can find their location through tracking services.

Strangers

While it may be tempting to share your location when on vacation or out for the day, it also tells strangers you aren’t home.

Work

We don’t condone playing hooky from work, but if you do happen to take a sick day for fun and games, your workplace can potentially check your location to verify if you’re sick or not, thus invading your privacy. Even going to the doctor’s office on a real sick day might be enough to cause trouble with work.

How Can You Protect Your Location Data?

So, with so many potential drawbacks to using location services, how do you protect yourself? There are a few methods:

  • Keep your social accounts private
  • Don’t mention vacations
  • Disable auto-sharing
  • Take control of location tagging apps
  • Turn location sharing off entirely

Keep Your Social Accounts Private

If you still want to share your location from time-to-time, protect yourself from strangers by making your social media accounts private. When your privacy settings are updated, you ensure your location is only seen by those you trust to follow you.

Don’t Mention Vacations

Like we mentioned above, letting people know that you’re on vacation puts your empty house at risk. The easiest way to avoid this is to just not announce your vacation, or only post photos and statuses about it after the fact.

Disable Auto-Sharing

Many social media platforms come with auto-sharing features for your location. Instead of letting your social media accounts blindly broadcast your location information, turn auto-sharing off and instead share your location on a case-by-case basis, or not at all.

Take Control of Location Tagging Apps

When you install a new app, most will ask for certain permissions. Instead of granting all apps location access, be selective. You can also turn off location permissions for already-installed apps.

Turn Off Location Sharing Entirely

You can take your privacy a step further by turning location sharing off entirely for all apps and devices. Instead of keeping location services on all the time, only turn them on when needed.


It’s undeniable that location-based app services make life more convenient. But they endanger your data and, in some cases, your life. You can take steps to reduce the damage that can be done, by reducing location data access or turning these services off altogether.

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