Most people think that turning off location services on iOS or Android phones will prevent tracking of their location. It doesn’t. Here’s how companies and hackers can still track you.
Virtually all modern mobile phones provide settings that let users turn off location services. On Android, you can disable the location reporting and location history features. iPhones offer a similar configuration choice.
The problem with location services on both platforms is that they don’t actually prevent tracking. It’s still possible to monitor the location of mobile phones with tracking features disabled.
One way is to monitor information from a phone’s accelerometer. The accelerometer is a tiny device inside phones whose primary purpose is to measure whether the phone is being held vertically or horizontally.
But the accelerometer can also help identify a user’s location. According to a report led by a researcher from the University of Illinois, accelerometers emit unique signals that make it possible for third parties to fingerprint a particular mobile phone user.
The report doesn’t suggest that location tracking via accelerometer signals is currently a widely prevalent issue. But it’s one concrete example of why the privacy settings that are built into Android and iOS are of limited effectiveness.
Similarly problematic is evidence that Apple is able to provide location-specific content to users even if they disable location services on their iPhones. That trend came to light following reports that the company censors certain information for iPhone users in China, and is apparently able to determine whether they are in China even if they disable location tracking.
It is not clear how Apple was able to determine whether users were in China after they disabled location tracking, but the evidence strongly suggests that disabling location services on iPhones is not sufficient for hiding one’s location.