Do your apps really need location services to function?

Do your apps really need location services to function?
A company that can track your phone can follow you anywhere. Photo: Cookiestudio, Bigstock

Your smartphone is a miracle of design and ingenuity that combines state of the art technology providing a high level of functionality. In addition to the huge number of uses that come with the phone in the form of inbuilt apps, numerous tech companies add increased functionality with applications such as Facebook, Snapchat, games and other useful additions to your phone — many of which also make use of your location services.

Most of these apps and services are now available for free. Some also act as a platform for advertisements. So how do these apps actually make money? What do the developers of these complex apps get in return?

Collecting your data

The main benefit that big tech companies get from creating fun and useful apps is that they can see what you use them for. Not only do they see what you look at and what you like, they also keep a permanent record of this information — and, if you have your location services on, they can see where you are when you are using the app and look for patterns in your location vs what you do with the app — and if you are permanently sharing your location they know everywhere you go.

Now it may not be directly useful for Instagram to know that you look at pictures of bikini models in spring when you are near a beach, but if they sell that data to swimwear Companies then they can help those companies to target you with ads — and make themselves more valuable as an advertising platform.

Those swimwear companies can also work out who you are on other apps and websites and advertise to you there too — especially if they also know when you are likely to be near one of their retail outlets. This doesn’t just apply to swimmers — tracking your location is incredibly valuable to any number of companies who can individualise their messages to be most likely to persuade you to buy their stuff.

What’s the big deal?

Let’s say you give an app access to your see your location to help automatically tag the location of a photo you’re taking. That app can now access your location whenever you open it — you don’t even have to be taking a picture. What is more if uploaded this data about you can be tied to a permanent profile that the company is building about you. They then share data amongst themselves to build an even clearer picture.

It may not seem like such a problem if your data is used to market products to you — in fact, you might like being shown relevant products that you actually want to buy. However, once your information has been collected, you have no idea who it will be sold to and what use it’s being put to. Absolutely anyone could have access to your movements and be easily able to work out your usual daily routine — in effect, you have lost your privacy.

Do you need to give out so much information?

Most apps that ask you to use location services don’t actually need it. You don’t need Facebook to have access to your phone’s GPS to be able to use messenger or scroll on your newsfeed. You can also post pictures on social media without an auto-location tag.

Many companies will use any excuse to get you to turn location services on, but you only really need it for actual maps and transport apps such as Google Maps and Uber. If you keep your location services off for most apps the companies running them won’t be able to track your movements nearly as effectively.

How can I be more aware about this?

One way is just taking the time to read the reasons apps give you while requesting your permission to access location services. You can also go into your phone settings and check which apps are authorised to access your location.

If you want to get a sense of how much data is generated by just keeping your smartphone on your person you can download apps that are meant to intentionally track your movements. We’ve mentioned one below.

Are there any apps you can trust?

If an app very clearly tells you in its terms and conditions or privacy policy that it does not collect your data and/or does not share any data with advertisers or other third parties then you can confidently use location services without worrying about who will be able to access it.

One app you can trust to track your location is Visits App. Visits works automatically in the background of your phone to keep a record of the places you have been, but the creators do not collect or share the data. The purpose of the app is to help you retrace your footsteps if you find a great shop or restaurant, but can t quite remember where it was when you try and go back.

The app also makes it easy for professionals to track how much time they have spent working at various locations. Lawyers, for example, will have an easy record of how long they are at the courthouse for, or at an off-site meeting. There are a number of apps that make life easier at work.

Apps like “Visits” which explicitly tell you that they do not collect or share your data are safe to use location services. Moreover the app needs to be bought, so the developers don’t rely on selling your data to get paid.

In other apps you should turn location services off if you don’t need them to access the functionality of the application. If you do need the program to be able to see your location, like in Uber, only grant access while you are actually using the app.