The Industry

iPhones and Androids Need a GPS Button

Smartphones deliberately make it a hassle to turn off location tracking. Apple and Google should fix that right now.

iPhone with location-tracking icon flashing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

On Monday, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Google tracks and stores users’ locations even when they’ve told it not to.

The story refers to a setting in your Google account called Location History, which keeps track of where you’ve been via your phone’s GPS and other data sources. Google allows you to turn off your Location History via either Android or the web, and you can even delete its previously stored data.

But with help from a Princeton computer scientist, the AP’s Ryan Nakashima showed that Google continues to collect and store time-stamped location data in other places. To stop Google from doing that, you have to go through a whole different set of steps, via a separate feature called Web & App Activity. And turning that off will limit Google’s data collection in far stricter ways, including many forms of collection that are unrelated to your location.

The AP’s investigation made it clear that Google’s misleading practices can affect users of Apple’s iOS devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, in addition to Android devices. For instance, if you have Google Maps installed on your iPhone and have granted it access to your location in your iOS settings, then Google is still tracking and storing your data. Wired has a handy guide to exactly how to turn that off. That handy guide is several paragraphs long.

What the AP’s report didn’t mention was that there’s another way to protect your location privacy, on both Android and iOS devices: turning off all of your location services in one fell swoop. It just happens that both Google and Apple subtly discourage it by making it far more of a hassle than it should be. If they rightly take the AP’s investigation as a moment to rethink some of their practices, this should be at the top of the list. In this era of rapacious data collection and rampant security breaches, every mobile device should allow you to turn location tracking on and off with the ease of adjusting your volume or brightening your screens.

First, some background: Both the Android and iOS operating systems allow you to opt in to location tracking on an app-by-app basis. That’s a good start: If an app wants to track you, it has to get your permission first. The assumption is that you’ll grant permission to some apps and refuse it to others. In a laudable step to limit unnecessary tracking—albeit only after a scandal involving Uber’s tracking of customers even when their rides were over—Apple now requires apps to give users a third option: tracking them only when the app is in use. For the privacy-conscious, that’s a smart choice: You might be surprised by how many apps are tracking you in the background if you haven’t told them not to. (Android doesn’t give you such fine-grained control, but the latest versions at least limit background-location requests.)

Apple also deserves credit for storing its own records of your location only on your device itself; unlike Google, Apple doesn’t maintain a profile of your location anywhere on its servers. That’s one of many reasons Apple has earned a reputation for better privacy practices than its chief rival (although some critics contend it could be doing much better).

As this week’s Google privacy snafu reminds us, though, Apple doesn’t fully control what other apps (such as Google Maps) do with your location data once you’ve granted them permission to track it. So as long as you’re allowing tracking, your privacy is at risk.

The good news is, there is a straightforward way to prevent this, which is to turn off location services altogether. The bad news is that neither Apple nor Google make that particularly easy.

On iOS devices, you do it by tapping Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services, and then move the slider to the off position. On Android, you go to Settings, then Google, then Location, then turn it off.

Once you’ve done this, your phone stops tracking you via its GPS system and a host of other systems it can use to home in on your location, including cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The device also stops providing your location data to any of the apps you use. It’s not quite the equivalent of putting a tinfoil hat on your phone, because there are other means by which your wireless carrier, apps, and other third parties can try to infer your location. But it’s the closest feature you’ll find to a systemwide off switch for location tracking.

The best part, for those whose phones are constantly running low on battery, is that turning off location services can substantially extend your battery life. My iPhone 6 is usually flirting with a shutdown by late afternoon, but with location services disabled, it can last all day. (Android used to provide a “battery saving” mode that turned off GPS but continued tracking you through other systems, but it discontinued that in Android P.)

The downside, of course, is that when apps can’t track your location, they can’t help you based on your location, either. So if you turn off location services, you can’t get turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps, find the nearest sushi place on Yelp, or play Pokémon Go. And turning location services back on is just as much of a hassle as turning it off.

In tests on my own iPhone 6, it generally took me about 10 seconds to do this from the unlocked iOS home screen—and that’s after I’ve become an expert at it. If your phone is locked, or if you’re in the middle of using an app, it takes longer. That may not sound like a lot of time, but it adds up to an infuriating user experience if you have to do it multiple times over the course of a day. Imagine if your browser required 10 seconds or more to load each time you opened it; it would be a throwback to the bad old days of dial-up and Netscape.

Then there’s the fact that many apps will serve you annoying messages imploring you to turn location services back on. I can’t count the number of times Yelp has asked me if I’m a ninja. To make matters worse, apps in iOS tend to assume by default that you’ve disabled location services only for them, not systemwide. So they direct you to the menu in Settings where you can turn location services back on for their app, specifically. But if you’ve disabled them altogether, then that menu doesn’t give you the option to enable them—you have to navigate to a different menu first. The whole process of getting from an app to the proper setting to enable location services and then back to that app can take up to 30 seconds. And again, that’s if you know what you’re doing.

The way I use location services—disabling them altogether most of the time, then enabling them only when I need them—seems like it should be the default, at least for the privacy-conscious. But a quick, unscientific survey of my Slate colleagues—a relatively tech-savvy and privacy-conscious bunch—found that only 15 of 48 who responded toggle location services on and off regularly. The majority, 31 of them, keep location services on systemwide, while adjusting permissions on a per-app basis. Just two of the 48 said they keep systemwide location services off most of the time.

Of those who said they keep location services on, several users of both iOS and Android told me they’d much prefer to be able to turn them on and off as needed but find it too inconvenient to do so.

There’s an exceedingly simple way for Apple and Google to fix this problem—if they cared to. The solution is to put a shortcut for the location-services button in the Control Center (on iOS) or Quick Settings menu (on Android). That’s where these operating systems put other systemwide controls that they expect users to employ regularly, such as airplane mode, Rotation Lock, and Do Not Disturb. That puts them just a swipe and a tap away at any given time and incentivizes people to use them whenever they feel like it. Anyone who has ditched their actual flashlight in favor of their smartphone’s flashlight can testify to how easy it is.

So why don’t Apple and Google do this?

Google declined to comment, beyond a boilerplate statement defending its location-tracking practices. And while the company has made some gestures toward better protecting user privacy in recent years, it might be too much to expect a company whose business is built partly on digital surveillance to go out of its way to help users turn off tracking.

Apple was more responsive. The company said it couldn’t comment on what features or settings might come in future versions of iOS. But a representative clarified that the company sees its main goal as protecting users’ location privacy without them having to think about it on a regular basis—an approach it refers to as privacy by design. That’s why its location-privacy settings are geared toward keeping a lid on users’ location data via local storage and fine-grained app permissions, rather than making it easier for them to turn it on and off manually on a routine basis.

It’s clear that Apple is thinking seriously about users’ location privacy. But the AP report about Google’s misleading tracking underscores how vulnerable iOS users remain to tracking and profiling by even reputable third parties, even if they trust Apple itself.

It’s time—past time, really—for Apple and Google to acknowledge that toggling location services on and off is something that even normal, nontechie users might want to do, in the interest of protecting their privacy. (And battery life!) With iOS 11, Apple took a step in the right direction by allowing users to customize their Control Center for the first time—yet it still didn’t include a Location Services switch among the options. If the companies care about privacy as much as they claim to, the next versions of iOS and Android should let users turn off tracking with a swipe.