How to Limit Location Tracking on Your Phone

You can't completely stop your cell phone from providing clues about where you go, but you can do a lot to reduce the data collection and make it less precise

illustration of map with location tracking on route Illustration: Getty Images

It should come as no surprise that tech companies use the location services on your smartphone to track your comings and goings.

That’s how they give you up-to-date traffic and weather reports, restaurant recommendations, and other helpful information. But they may also sell that information to marketers and others interested in studying your habits.

While this isn’t exactly breaking news, the extent of the info collection might unsettle you. According to the market analysis firm Grand View Research, that data from your smartphone powers a business worth an estimated $14 billion worldwide.

Those precious insights into your whereabouts are often used by companies to show you targeted ads and make business decisions. 

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Even your cell phone carrier may be using your location and internet history to target you with ads, if you haven’t opted out of this tracking.

And law enforcement officials and government agencies (including the FBI, the IRS, and the Drug Enforcement Administration) have been buying this location data to secretly track citizens, no warrants needed. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security used cell phone location data for immigration and border enforcement.

“Location data is incredibly revealing of a person’s life,” says Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It can be used to infer demographics, habits, religious practice, and to reveal when people seek medical care from a place like Planned Parenthood.”

Most people know that Google sees their search history, but they have no idea that location data from their weather app could end up with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or a local police department.

"There’s a doctrine in the law called the ’third-party doctrine,’ which says that if you share data with a company, you lose your privacy rights over it, and the government can generally access it, even without a warrant," says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. "People should at least be aware of how closely they are tracked by hundreds of companies every day, and how that data might end up in the hands of the police."

It’s becoming harder for companies to get access to your precise location information without your permission, and you can reduce the amount of location data companies collect. (See steps below.) But even if you have location services turned off, mobile apps may be able to glean your general whereabouts through your IP address. As long as your phone is on, your movements can be tracked via WiFi, Bluetooth, or the signal to your mobile network. That’s a big reason the EFF says location tracking is the deepest privacy threat from mobile phones.

If you’re particularly worried about revealing your location, the best thing to do is leave your device at home, says Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security. “If you must bring it, turn off your phone before you travel to the place in question, and do not turn it on again until you are nowhere near the sensitive location.”

For help in limiting the location tracking by Google, Apple, and the apps on your phone, follow these steps.

Android Phones

To its credit, Google gives you some control over location tracking through your phone by asking you before it turns on location services. But you may well have agreed to this tracking without thinking about it. Requests for consent usually arrive in those pop-up notifications people accede to quickly in order to get on with their day.

If you want to go back and manage your location settings, Google provides instructions for that. But here, in a nutshell, is what you need to do:

1. Swipe down from the top of the screen to get to the Quick Settings panel.

2. Tap Location to toggle it off. (You may need to swipe to the right to find the Location icon.)

If you can’t find Location in your Quick Settings panel, go to Settings > Google > Location. Samsung phone owners may find it under Settings > Location.

Note that turning this setting off means you won’t be able to use Find My Device to locate or remotely wipe the phone if it gets lost or stolen. And turn-by-turn directions in Google Maps won’t work, either.

If you prefer to keep Find My Device active, you can leave that switch in the On position and disable location access for specific apps.

In the Quick Access screen, touch and hold Location to get your phone’s location settings. Then tap “App location permissions.”

From there, you can manage the access for individual apps. Your options are “Allow all the time,” “Allow only while using the app,” “Ask every time,” and “Don’t allow.” 

You may say “all the time" to Google Maps, for example, but “don’t allow” for retailers’ apps and video games. Note that Google itself gets location data from phones that have location history enabled, even when you’re using a non-Google app such as Facebook or Yelp.

If you’re curious to know which apps have recently requested your GPS coordinates, you can see a short list on the main Location screen.

There are other location settings you can control by tapping “Location services.” From there, you can turn off location history, which saves the places you’ve been with your phone. Other settings let you decide whether your phone can scan for nearby WiFi access points or Bluetooth devices, and enable you turn location sharing on or off with specified contacts. You can learn more about these services from Google’s help page.

iPhones

Apple makes a big point of saying it doesn’t sell user information to outside companies, but the same can’t be said for the companies that make iPhone apps.

Like Google, Apple provides instructions on how to manage your location data.

In short, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services.

At the top of the screen, there’s a toggle switch to turn the tracking off completely. 

Unlike with Android phones, even if you turn off Location Services, the phone will temporarily reenable the services if you use Find My iPhone or activate Lost Mode.

Below the tracking toggle switch, you’ll find the list of apps that use location services. Tap on one and you can decide for yourself whether to grant it access “never,” “while [you’re] using the app,” or only when you elect to share info through the app, or grant permission after receiving a notification.

Different choices will give you different functionality. For example, allowing Google Maps full access will get you real-time traffic and transit updates in addition to basic maps and directions.

You can also use the Location Services page to see which apps have recently received your location. That’s indicated by arrows.

Beneath the list of apps is an option called System Services. Selecting that will give you a list of situations when your iPhone might want to access your location, such as when it’s looking for a cell-phone network or wants to send an emergency SOS, automatically set the time zone, or track your steps for fitness goals. 

Toggle the switch for each app to manage access as you please. You can also block the location data collection Apple uses to improve its maps app, traffic and route information, and other features. You can turn off location history and clear the list of places you recently visited with your iPhone by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Significant Locations.


Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).