Future Tense

Apple Is Giving iPhone Users More Control Over Their Location Data

Two hands with black nail polish use an iPhone
French internet influencer Maxime Virdis, May 29, 2020, in Paris Philippe Lopez/Getty Images

The most exciting news at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday was not the Watch sleep tracking or the new Isaac Asimov show. It was the company’s announcement that users will get more fine-grained controls over location tracking in iOS 14.

Currently, you can decide whether you want to share your location data with specific apps and whether you want those apps to be able to continue to access location data while running in the background. Now, Apple will also allow users to share less specific location data—the general area or city they are in, for instance, but not their precise coordinates and location.

That may seem like a fairly small change, but offering users more nuanced choices about the granularity of their data is actually very significant. Traditionally, most of the choices about sharing certain types of data with smartphone apps have been pretty binary—either you’re willing to share your contacts and location and photos with an app or you’re not (in which case you’re often not able to use it).

Those all-or-nothing choices about sharing data with apps began to ease in 2017, when Apple gave users one additional choice—they could also decide to let an app access their location data while they were actively using the app, but prevent that collection from continuing while the app was running in the background. Google created a similar option as well, allowing Android users the option to set apps so that they could collect location data only while in use. That meant people could use an app that required location data in order to work—such as ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft that rely on users’ locations to be able to pick them up in the right place—but still prevent those companies from accessing their location data at other times, when it was not absolutely essential to providing their service.

There’s always a risk when new privacy controls are created for users—especially ones that require people to opt-in to them—that no one will care or take advantage of them. But the option to set smartphone apps not to collect location data while they were not being used shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. In January, Fast Company reported that when Android users are given the option to not share location data with apps running in the background they choose to do so about half of the time. Furthermore, the article noted, the amount of background location data collected by marketers through smartphone apps had dropped by 68 percent since Apple gave that option greater prominence in the fall 2019 release of iOS 13, according to location data analytics firm Location Sciences. Ben Grouchko, who runs a company called Teemo that builds software to help apps collect location data, told DigiDay, also in January, that apps were now seeing fewer than half of users agreeing to share location data with them when they were not in use.

It’s possible that part of the point of the newly announced Apple option is intended to address some of the concerns this loss of data created for advertisers. By accessing a user’s general location, advertisers may still be able to tailor offers to them without possessing quite as much detailed information about exactly where someone is at any given moment. For advertisers, this new alternative may be a welcome compromise if marketing data from background location tracking has truly dropped by 68 percent in the past few years. It remains to be seen whether users will be as ready to embrace that compromise, but the success of the previous location data controls suggests they may be open to other options in this vein.

The success of these finer-grained controls for location data sharing on smartphones hints at a possible path forward for smartphone privacy that aims at tailoring different types of intermediate permissions—beyond just yes or no—to other kinds of data as well. In many ways, this is easier to do with location data than other types of information that apps routinely demand access to. For instance, deciding that an app can only access your contacts or your photos while you’re using it would be unlikely to have any significant privacy impact because those data sets don’t change anywhere near as constantly as your location and, even if they did, all of those changes could simply be downloaded and stored by an app each time you used it—they would not require constant access for apps running in the background.

Still, it’s better to consider options than to give up on the ideal altogether. Instead of giving an app access to all of your contacts or photos, perhaps you could designate a subset of them to be shared (your most frequently used contacts, or photos taken in the past two days). Or you could share more general information—for instance, the domains of your email contacts or area codes of their phone numbers—and then, if you’re trying to pull up a particular contact in an app, you could discreetly designate all the email addresses in a certain domain, or contacts with a certain area code to then be shared with the app in question. You might be able to share metadata about your photos with an app—when they were taken, or where—and then grant the app access to particular photos on a case-by-case basis when you want to use them in that context by granting it more granular access to all of the photos taken in a certain place, or on a particular day.

These particular examples may well be bad ideas—controls that no one would want to use or that would create so much inconvenience that everyone would prefer just to grant apps broader access. More granular data sharing controls will have to be tailored not just to what kinds of control people want to have over their data but also to the specific type of data in question—in the same way that the location controls to block access for apps running in the background, or only grant access to location information about a general area or neighborhood are tailored to the nature of location data in particular.

Figuring out what those options should look like for other types of data is far from straightforward. But the fact that Apple is actually creating new options for users to choose how they control their data is a very promising sign and, with luck, those efforts will not be confined just to location data.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.