A Defensive Computing Checklist    by Michael Horowitz
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LOCATION TRACKING

Your location can be tracked by your devices, by the apps on your devices and by the websites you visit. There are four approaches here, and I favor the fourth one below which is the most comprehensive.

  1. The first approach is to play whack-a-mole; to configure access to location data on an app-by-app basis. This strikes me as ridiculous.

    • Android 12 and 13: Settings -> Location. If the main "Use Location" toggle is off, turn it on. You then see the apps with Location permission and those that have recently used it. When done with your app review, turn the "Use Location" toggle back off (if desired).
      Android 9: Settings -> Biometrics and security -> App permissions -> Location -> configure each app.
      Android 10: Settings -> Location -> App permission and configure each app.
      From Google: Choose which apps use your Android device's location.
    • Android app permissions (as of version 13): Allowed all the time, Allowed only while in use, Ask every time and Not allowed.
    • iOS: see the iOS topic for more on Location Tracking
    • iOS13: Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services and then choose, for each app, when it can access your location. While there, also configure "Share My Location" as you prefer. And, still more: configure each of the 13 System Services and the 4 Product Improvement services - whether they can access your location.
    • iOS 13 added a new Location permission: share your location with an app just once. The next time the app wants it, it has to ask. iOS 12 only allowed sharing always, never or when the app was in use. iOS 13 also added periodic pop-ups when apps use your location in the background. A sort of FYI.
    • iOS 13 Location: iOS 12 let you grant an app permission to track your location all the time when the app was installed. iOS 13 limits install-time location permissions to while the app is in use. To let an app track your location at all times, you have to go into the System Settings. iOS 13 treats this as a bad thing a periodically warns you about how often your location was used and lets you disable it. Sound good? But Apple does not warn customers about their own location tracking. By default, iOS users agree to 18 separate location-tracking system services during setup, including Apple's own location-based advertisements. Apple can add new features that utilize location tracking without asking for permission. From here: Apple says recent changes to operating system improve user privacy, but some lawmakers see them as an effort to edge out its rivals by Reed Albergotti in WaPo (Nov 2019).
    • For iOS version 12, do Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services to see a list of apps. Each app is assigned one of three rules: never see your location, always see your location or only see it while using the app. Also here is a link to System Services and their location usage.
    • Does a weather app really need your current location? Maybe just give it a couple zip codes where you often are instead, and only give it access to your current location when traveling.
  2. A second approach, is to still let the phone know where you are now, but tell Google not keep a history of where you have been.

    • Disable Location History: Location history is a Google account thing, not an Android thing. At least with Android 12, there is no system setting for this. It is controlled at myaccount.google.com/ activitycontrols/location. More from Google: Manage your Location History .
      This April 2019 article says to go to myactivity.google.com, select "Activity Controls" and turn off both "Web & App Activity" and "Location History" While there, also turn off YouTube History and configure it to auto-delete activity older than three months. This May 2019 article by David Nield in Wired covers all the bases both for a Google account and on a mobile device.
    • Keep a Location History but Automatically Delete it after a while: Start at myactivity.google.com, click on Activity controls, scroll to Location history, click Manage Activity, look for an icon shaped like a nut and then click Automatically delete location history. Whew.
    • First find the Location section of system Settings (see the 3rd approach below). Then click on Google Location History to pause it (it can not be disabled, only paused). On Android 10, Location History is buried under "Advanced"). Note: this is done for a Google account, not for a device, thus you must be on-line to make changes. You may also want to click on Show All Activity Controls to see the Web and App Activity and pause that too. From Google: Manage your Android device's location settings. The article states that, with Location disabled, you can still get local search results and ads based on your public IP address. You can test this with a VPN.
  3. A third approach is to disable Location Services entirely. On Android, the "Use Location" option is the master on/off switch for Location services. Here are some paths to find it.
    • Android 7 and 10 and 12: Settings -> Location
    • Android 9: Settings -> Biometrics and security -> Location
    • Android 8 and 9: Settings -> Security and Location -> Location
    On iOS13 there is only one path: Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services -> Turn Location Services OFF
  4. My advice, the fourth approach, is to prevent iOS and Android from knowing your location in the first place. To do this:
    • Turn off 4G/LTE Internet
    • Turn off Wi-Fi
    • Turn off Bluetooth
    • Turn off GPS by disabling "Location" (Android) or "Location Services" (iOS)

    With these four things disabled, a phone can still make/receive calls and text messages. A dedicated GPS app can be used to confirm the status of GPS. Note that your location can still be tracked by the cell tower the phone is talking to, but, this only provides a general idea of where you are rather than a precise location. The next step would be to enable airplane mode, and the step after that, is to turn the phone off.

    For ages, I was the only person suggesting this. Then, some allies showed up:

    1. In Dec. 2019, Proton (the company behind ProtonMail and ProtonVPN) said that a basic principle of using any smartphone is "...turn off all the connectivity you do not need. This goes for whatever smartphone, and whichever operating system, you have."
    2. In the June 26, 2020 episode of The Privacy, Security, & OSINT Show the show host, Michael Bazzell, suggested the same thing.
    3. In August 2020, we had this: NSA warns that mobile device location services constantly compromise snoops and soldiers (The Register). The National Security Agency issued advice on Limiting Location Data Exposure (PDF).

    Bonus benefit 1: better battery life.

    Bonus benefit 2: Billboards will not track you. See Digital Billboards Are Tracking You. And They Really, Really Want You to See Their Ads by Thomas Germain of Consumer Reports. Nov. 2019

    Note that even with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi disabled, an Android device may still use either or both to determine your location. For more, see the topic on Mobile Scanning and Sharing.

BLUETOOTH TRACKERS

Android, by default, warns you about Bluetooth trackers that are following you around. The feature is called "Unknown tracker alerts" and it requires that both Bluetooth and Location are turned on. As of December 2023, the only supported trackers were Apple AirTags, but Google plans to add more. See Find unknown trackers (from Google) for more.

ASSORTED

Taking a step back, consider who is the enemy here? That is, who is it we don't want tracking us. Some people/articles focus on apps. But, it also the Operating System vendors, Apple and Google, that learn our location. And, of course, the cell phone companies, who are being being sued for selling location data. Another reason for my approach to defense.

Even if you're paying for the product, you're still the product by Cory Doctorow (Nov 14, 2022). Turning off location tracking with Android and Google is hard. Quoting: "Google also has 'privacy' switches in its preference panels that do nothing. Indeed, there are so many places in Google's location privacy settings where you can tick a box that claims to turn off location spying. None of them work. A senior product manager at Google complained to her colleagues that she had turned off three different settings and was still being tracked..."

February 12, 2023: How to Make Sure You’re Not Accidentally Sharing Your Location by David Nield in Wired. The article covers iOS, Android, Windows and macOS. Quoting: "Your devices and apps really, really want to know where you are ... Managing what you're sharing and what you're not sharing, and when, can quickly get confusing."

When possible, tell Android to share an approximate location rather than the precise location with apps.

Background: This December 2018 article in the NY Times, documents the tracking, but not defense. Same for this article. Google has a history with location tracking. See also London Underground to begin tracking passengers through Wi-Fi hotspots (May 2019). The only defense is to disable Wi-Fi. See the Mobile Scanning topic to learn how to insure that Wi-Fi is really off and stays off. In Stores, Secret Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move (June 2019) about Location Tracking with Bluetooth. Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy NY Times (Dec 2019).

Cameras: On many computing devices the camera may embed the current location of the device in a photograph. I am no expert on disabling this in every operating system, so ... when you are away from home and posting photos on social media, people can tell you are away from home. If you are far, it is an invitation to rob your home. If you post photos taken at home, people can learn where you live. Spend the time to learn how to stop the camera from doing this.
On iOS 13, I am pretty sure this can not be disabled but if you use the OS to share a photo there is an option to remove the location information. If you copy the photo on iOS 13 the location information is included. IrfanView on Windows reveals all the hidden information in pictures.

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