Location tracking of your mobile device is ubiquitous and raises privacy concerns. There are actions you can take to stop location tracking or at least minimize it in certain realms, but for other kinds of location tracking you will need to advocate for expanded privacy legislation.
What is Location Tracking
Location tracking -- detecting where your mobile device is located and thus logging a journal of your locations over time -- has become pervasive as multiple technologies and tracking methods have advanced. For example,
As you travel, your phone sends out signals, "pings," nearby cell towers used by your cell phone carriers, so that they can connect your phone to the cell phone system and also enable your phone to indicate the strength of the signal to the closest one with little vertical bars. Carriers log with which towers your device has connected, whether or not a phone call took place, and they have access to this record of your travel history.
An automated car toll collection system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors to detect your electronic toll gadget, and log a record of your passing through that toll booth.
Data collectors can infer your approximate location based on the IP address of your traveling device.
Some governments are implementing measures to fight the current coronavirus pandemic that include location tracking of those infected to ensure their compliance with regulations or to notify potentially infected others
Video cameras outside many establishments constantly record passers-by. Combined with facial recognition databases, your location could be potentially ascertained.
Pros and Cons of GPS location tracking
Sometimes an app knowing your location can result in a benefit to you, such as informing you of local weather or nearby gas stations. However, your history of locations is sold to marketers who use that information to more precisely target you. So for example, marketers may send you coupons to an establishment near your regular locations.
But there could be more far-reaching implications of a third-party knowing your location history, particularly if you wish to remain anonymous, such as on a trip to a political rally, a visit to a religious organization, a meeting of a personal nature, etc. where such information has the potential to be abused. Even selling of “anonymized data” is not necessarily truly anonymous, as for example, a device that is located every night in one location and every day in another can be deduced to belong to the commuter residing in the first location and working in the second.
Stop location tracking or at least reduce it
If you are concerned about your location being tracked, there are several things you can do:
1. Turn off GPS location tracking by mobile phone apps
The following are examples of articles that explain how to disable GPS-based location services on your mobile device:
Wikihow's How to turn GPS off on Android
Windows Central's How to disable location tracking on Windows 10 PC
The Verge's Android 101: How to stop location tracking
Even the apps that offer “convenience,” such as a weather app providing location-based weather forecast, should be reconsidered; is it really that much harder to type “weather 12345” (where the number is your zip or postal code) into your non-tracking search engine (see search engine privacy using engines such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage) compared to having a weather app track your location? For apps that provide useful functionality that use location tracking, such as online maps providing directions, consider turning on GPS tracking only when you need directions rather than leaving it on all the time.
2. Use VPN Online
If you have not already done so, install and use VPN software on your computers and mobile devices (see Use VPN Online). This will hinder data collectors from inferring your location based on your IP address.
3. Turn off transmission to cell towers
There is no convenient way to shut off tracking and logging your cell phone location as you travel from one cell tower’s range to another, short of a) turning off your phone; or b) leaving your mobile device in airplane mode. Even those steps are reported not to guarantee 100% invisibility, so if privacy of your location is paramount, you might consider c) a “faraday bag.” A faraday bag is a case that blocks the transmission of any electromagnetic fields, including GPS, cell phone transmissions, radio waves read by RFID readers, etc., so they can protect credit cards, smart fobs, cell phones, mobile tablets, etc. from detection. Some examples from small $10 cases to large $250 duffle bags are found below (Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.):
3. Advocate for stronger privacy legislation
Admittedly, none of the steps above is convenient, as shutting down communication also blocks incoming calls and messages and going back and forth between operating mode and shut-down mode is cumbersome.
So that leaves our final strategy: advocate for stronger privacy legislation with your legislative representative. For example, the data collected should not be allowed to be given or sold to third parties without explicit consent; law-enforcement can only access location data with a court-ordered warrant based on strong probable cause; put a time limit on how long a carrier can keep the location data; provide consumers access to this data and the ability to delete them.
We recognize that such data has helped law enforcement to capture dangerous criminals. We need to balance that benefit with privacy rights of innocent individuals and prevent abuse of data.
4. Location tracking to help fight the coronavirus
With the current battle against the spread of the coronavirus, some governments are considering or have implemented some form of location tracking in order to track virus carriers and enforce “social distancing” regulations. The following are examples of reports of such initiatives:
We believe that it is important for all those fortunate enough to live under democratic rule to understand the tradeoff between health as well as other safety goals vs. privacy. We, as a society, need to assess how much benefit derives from extreme measures such as location tracking by a government vs. the privacy rights being sacrificed. Furthermore, if location tracking is adopted for a worthy public safety cause, we suggest legislation requiring oversight by legislative and judicial bodies and stipulating limits on the surveillance to ensure it is not abused and expires at a defined point in time.
For more vigilant privacy protection, consider the following:
disable GPS tracking on your mobile device except when you absolutely need to use an app such as navigation assistance that relies on GPS
when traveling to a location that you feel needs to remain private, place your mobile device and any other wireless gadget into a faraday bag or at least turn off your phone or place it into airplane mode
advocate for stronger privacy legislation regarding location data as with other private data