One of the things that make the iPhone so powerful is its ability to know where you are in the world via its built in location services and native apps like Find My.
This ability allows you so see your location on a map, get real-time, location-aware weather forecasts, and can even help apps know what currency to display when you are doing some shopping.
Taken together all these abilities and the technology behind them are known as the iPhone’s “location services.”
Location services are powerful tools on your iPhone, but as with most digital tools today, they have the possibility to be abused and can lead to privacy violations. Here’s everything you need to know about the iPhone’s location services.
iPhone Location Services: What Are They?
Simply put, the iPhone’s locations services are software-based tools that rely on various hardware technologies in your iPhone to see where you are in the world.
These hardware-based technologies include GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular connections. Anyone one of these–or all taken as a whole–allow your iPhone to know where it is, and thus where you are.
Simply put, without location services, and apps that rely on “current locations” wouldn’t work. These apps include everything from mapping apps to whether apps.
iPhone Location Services: Why Are They Privacy Nightmares?
While location services undoubtedly make your iPhone a much more versatile tool, the sheer fact that they allow your iPhone and its installed apps to potentially know where you are at any given time means the technology is open to abuse.
Simply put, location services make it possible for apps–or individuals–to stalk you without your knowledge.
Now thankfully, most people don’t have to worry about another person stalking them via location services. That stalker would have to be well-versed in hacking and be able to get around the myriad privacy security walls built into the iPhone’s iOS operating system.
But apps are another story. Apps frequently request access to your location data even when they don’t need it. And while there’s virtually no chance an app wants to stalk you because it’s obsessed with you, you location data is very valuable to the app’s developers, because they can sell that data to advertisers who want to better target you with location-based ads.
iPhone Location Services: How Can I Protect My Privacy
Thankfully, Apple has built-in an insane amount of location privacy protections into iOS–making it very easy for users to keep their location private from apps. To take advantage of these protections, you’ll first need to go to the location services settings of the iPhone. To do this:
- Open the Settings app.
- Tap Privacy.
- Tap Location Services.
At the top of the Location Services, you’ll see a “Location Services” toggle. It should show as ON (green) by default. If you want you can turn it off (tap the toggle so it turns white), and then no app–of even the iPhone itself–will know your location.
Of course, disabling all Location Services on your iPhone will make the iPhone much less useful. For example, with Location Services disabled, no mapping app will know where you are, making direction much more difficult.
But Location Services isn’t all or nothing. Apple has built-in tools to the Location Services setting that allow you to restrict Location Services on a per-app basis. This means some apps can have access to the iPhone’s Location Services–and thus your location–while you can block other apps from doing so.
On the Location Services screen, you’ll notice that there’s a list of apps listed. These are the apps that either are or have requested access to your location. From this list you can change the type of location access you’ve given the app.
To change location access for any given app, tap the app in the Location Services list and on the next screen select one of the options presented:
- Never: This means the app will never be able to access your location data at all.
- Ask Next Time: With this selected, the next time the app launches it will ask you again if you’d like to give it access to your location data.
- While Using the App: This selection will give the app access to your location data–but only when you are actually using the app. With this selection, the app will be blocked from your location data when the app is only running in the background.
- Always: This will give the app access to your location data 24/7, even when the app is running in the background.
So which option should you use?
It depends on the app. But if the features you use in an app (like a video game) don’t require the app to know your location, there’s no reason to give that app access to your location data.
However, a mapping app probably has legitimate reasons to want to know your location. In that case, you could set the app’s location permissions to “While Using the App.” This means when the app is open, it will be able to see where. You are. But when the app is closed it won’t have access to your location.
In short, for most apps, you’ll always want to set location data access to “Never.” For a select few (mapping, weather apps) you can feel safe setting their access to “While Using the App.” Rarely, if at all, should you ever give an app “Always” access to your location data.
That being said, a few types of apps might have legitimate reasons for wanting to know your location even when the app isn’t directly in use. One example of this is apps that track your runs, which may need to know your location data even when the app is in the background so it can accurately map your running path.
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Apple expert and novelist, Michael Grothaus has been covering tech on KnowYourMobile for the best part of 10 years. Prior to this, he worked at Apple. And before that, he was a film journalist. Michael is a published author; his book Epiphany Jones was voted as one of the best novels about Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly. Michael is also a writer at other publications including VICE and Fast Company.