Future Tense

The iPhone’s Voice Memos Feature Might Be Tracking Your Location

Here’s why—and how to turn it off.

A man using an iPhone
Be careful using this as a microphone. Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

Like Zoom calls and Amazon Prime, one of the technologies having a pandemic moment is the iPhone Voice Memos app. Historical societies, news organizations, and schools have been asking people to record their insights and dispatches during the coronavirus crisis. Some have suggested socially distanced friends could swap voice recordings as an alternative to yet another exhausting video call.

Podcasting is another area that’s relying heavily on Voice Memos, including at Slate. Because our podcast studios are closed right now, our hosts and guests have at times been turning to audio memos to record segments at home. One thing my colleagues have noticed, however, is a peculiar and possibly invasive quirk: If you don’t label the memo yourself, the app will automatically use the location where the recording took place as the name. In other words, Voice Memos is tracking your location. You don’t have to be too paranoid to see why that might be a problem.

Screenshot of Voice Memos app showing locations where the author was walking.
Voice Memos from a walk. Aaron Mak

It turns out this isn’t a bug. Apple refers to it as “location-based naming.” The feature, which uses local Wi-Fi networks to divine locations, is presumably meant to help jog people’s memories when they look back through their recordings. They’ll be able to search for the recording they made in the office or at home. This naming scheme has been around for a while now; it came with iOS 12’s Voice Memos revamp in 2018 for iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Gadget reviewers noted the weirdness of the feature upon its release.

To test out how the location tracking works, I took a walk around northwest D.C. with my iPhone and recorded memos at various stops along the way. As you can see, the app will generally label recordings based on nearby neighborhoods, major streets, and landmarks like parks and statues. If you were to mark these locations on a map, you could get a pretty good sense of my walking path along with time markers. Some of the file names on recordings from Slate staff, however, have been even more granular, with exact addresses that include house numbers. Users on Apple’s help forums have even reported that their recordings have been labeled with the names of nearby businesses.

If you’re the type of person who’s recording your thoughts and observations throughout the day using Voice Memos, location-based naming could be a fairly convenient way to organize everything. The issue is that it appears iPhones have location-based naming enabled as the default. (Apple didn’t respond to my questions about the feature.) The Slate staffers who noticed the naming happening hadn’t actually decided to turn the feature on, and so they were unpleasantly surprised to see their locations were being logged.

There are a number of privacy risks inherent to this feature, particularly because it appears to be automatically enabled. For instance, some of Slate’s podcast producers have found that people will inadvertently email them Voice Memo files that include exact addresses. In a more sinister scenario, a malefactor could hack into an iPhone and access a record of where a Voice Memo user has been.

In order to disable location-based naming on your iPhone, go into the settings for Voice Memos to switch the feature off and make sure the app never has access to your location. After doing so, the app will instead just number the recordings sequentially.

Screenshot showing how to turn off location-based naming.
Voice Memos settings. Aaron Mak

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