Phone location tracking is frighteningly real: how to protect yourself

A new report reveals something that we probably already know, perhaps in jest. Corporations are out to get us and our privacy is pretty much a commodity already. It does, however, demonstrate the implications of that massive covert surveillance and the social and legal structures that empower or at least permit such activities. While it is admittedly difficult to escape that sad reality without shunning technology altogether, there are still a few things you can do to minimize the data that others can gather about you.

Cyberpunk starts now

The cyberpunk genre mostly revolves around a futuristic dystopia where large corporations either directly run the world or pull the strings, monitoring and controlling everyone's lives. That doesn't sound futuristic at all and is pretty much what we're starting to experience today, though admittedly to a lesser degree.

The New York Times' latest report slaps that reality on readers' faces, revealing just how much about them can be gleaned even from supposedly anonymized and protected location data, most of them coming from our smartphones. Granted, location alone might not be enough to identify individuals but they can be interpolated almost too easily with data that is publicly available, some from social media.

Making matters worse is how the entire world seems to conspire to allow this violation of privacy that is protected by most Constitutions around the world. From corporate culture to slow-paced legal development, users are left to fend for themselves instead of relying on those that should be keeping their welfare in mind. Fortunately, it's not that hard to do and the biggest hurdle is actually making

the conscious effort to make changes.

The Caveat

As mentioned, the world seems to conspire against people's privacy and it's almost impossible to be 100% free. Even if you ditch your smartphone, signing up for any account and even just using an Internet-connected computer can already leak some data about your location. Telephone companies, for example, will always be able to know your location to some degree, even if you use a regular feature phone.

There isn't a panacea but we do have means to at least mitigate the effects of smartphone location tracking. And it starts with knowing what your phone can do and what apps should not do.

Flip that switch

Fortunately, smartphone platforms do have facilities to curb the number of data apps and services gather, particular about location. Both Android and iOS can do more than just turn location use on and off for the entire phone. They also allow users to toggle location permissions on a per-app basis.

This does, of course, require digging into each app and turning location permissions for those that have no business knowing your location. Operating systems have introduced such granular permission systems to minimize apps' access to unnecessary data and hardware but some still try to get away with what they can.

That said, flipping that switch may have unwanted effects, depending on the app in question. Some apps, like maps and navigation, naturally need access to location to even work while others have optional features that use location, like geotagging photos and posts. There will always be apps that make it sound like location data is critical to its function and will break without it, whether or not it actually makes sense. In that case, it might be best to report such behavior to Google or Apple.

Online services are also culpable of storing location data, with Google and Facebook as the biggest offenders. They do have settings to wipe your location data and stop recording it altogether, but getting there can sometimes require more work than necessary, being buried beneath settings and options. Unfortunately, that inertia is one of the biggest problems users face when protecting themselves.

Awareness and Vigilance

With corporations seeking to profit from your privacy and governments failing to keep up with fast-paced development, users really have little choice but to do the work of shielding themselves and protecting their privacy. No matter how simple it may be, however, the cognitive burden of simply doing so is enough to discourage people from doing so. Many have resorted to justifying the current practice as something in exchange for free and sometimes convenient services. It doesn't have to be but until modern society undergoes a massive revolution, people will have to fight to keep that power in their own hands.