How to manage your location data: GPS tracking and more!

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GPS is one of the most useful features of smartphones these days. Whether you’re looking for gas, food, or just a better way to avoid traffic jams, you probably use a maps app every day. Unfortunately, too much location data can become a privacy issue. While you can easily turn off your GPS, there are other ways for apps to know exactly where you are. Here’s how you can get off the grid and avoid tracking with your GPS turned off.

See also: Best Privacy Web Browsers for Android

We’ll walk you through some of the most common location culprits, along with ways to work around them. In the US, the NSA even released a note on how to secure your location, so we’ll talk about that as well. Let’s protect ourselves.

How does your phone collect location data in addition to GPS?

WiFi GPS Tracking

Even though your GPS is the most obvious way for your phone to track location, it’s far from the only one. If you leave your Wi-Fi on and hop between public hotspots, you’re essentially leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind. Each time you connect to a new network, you leave a record that parties can then follow.

Your Bluetooth connection can also provide location data, especially if you use a wearable to track your fitness. Bluetooth Low Energy beacons rely on the transfer of data between the starting point and your phone to determine your location. This can be useful if you want to find your phone after misplacing it, but it can also save your location around your home.

If that’s not enough, you can always triangulate your phone’s location between two cell towers. You’ve probably seen this method on just about every police procedural show, but it’s true. Based on the data you receive from two different towers and the time it takes, officials can estimate your location – no GPS required.

What permissions can you control?

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 Pro 1

Adam Molina / Android Authority

Now that you know that pretty much everything on your phone wants to follow you, what can you do? Well, you could turn off your phone, remove the battery, and live in the woods, but that would probably mess up your daily routine. Instead, it’s important to keep tabs on the services you use and the permissions you grant to certain apps.

For starters, you can turn on airplane mode whenever you don’t need your phone. This turns off your cellular and Wi-Fi radios, allowing you to only use what’s already on your phone. It’s a useful setting to get familiar with, but you’ll need to remember that you can’t receive text messages or check social media.

See also: Best security apps for Android that aren’t antivirus apps

You can also access your Settings app on Android or iOS. From there, head to Privacy on iOS or Location on Android. It’s up to you whether you want to grant location services on a case-by-case basis or just turn them off altogether. After all, do games like Minecraft really need your location data?

Google is also quite thirsty for your location data, so you can check your activity settings. Just head to the My Activity page, where you can view your specific usage and delete Google records based on all time or just the last few days or months. You can also disable the Automatically sync data setting, which should help you save on data usage, if nothing else.

What does the NSA say?

While you might not be eager to take NSA advice with your location data, its August 2020 memo is worth reading. After all, if the agency can track your every move, it must have several ways to keep its own employees safe. The memo mentions most of the security tips we mentioned above, like airplane mode and app-based permissions, but it also goes deeper.

The agency then recommends disabling ad permissions where possible. You can also reset your ad permissions weekly, just in case you pick up a few ad trackers along the way. It’s also worth looking into a VPN for your phone to hide your usage further, although you want to keep an eye on the cost of a VPN.

You can also completely minimize your web browsing and make sure to remove any browser tracking permissions your phone may have. Overall, if a privacy setting is available, the NSA recommends trying it. Take a look at the memo above – you might learn something new.

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