Apple and Google remind you about location privacy, but don’t forget your wireless carrierThe latest smartphone operating systems from Apple and Google want you to think more about what other companies know about where you’ve been. But the primary way iOS 13 and Android 10 do that – a notification to warn that one application or another has been getting your location when you weren’t using that app – only tells part of that privacy story.
Those background-location dialogs highlight one of the more obvious and easily-policed forms of location tracking: when apps ask the operating system for the phone’s location as determined from GPS, nearby Wi-Fi signals and other coordinates. Both iOS and Android’s notifications let you revoke that background location access with one tap, so that the app can only check your whereabouts when it’s active in the foreground.
That’s a step worth taking when apps don’t use that background data to provide an immediately useful service like, say, providing directions, tracking your run or warning you of an approaching storm.
Even apps completely deprived of access to your smartphone’s GPS feed can, however, still approximate your location from the Internet Protocol address the phone got assigned by its current source of internet access – as Facebook noted at the end of a September blog post.Google itself, meanwhile, will continue to track your location in the background if you went with its suggestion to use that information to provide more accurate navigation and other geographic information. You can now, however, have that location history erased automatically after three or 18 months by changing the settings in Google’s Maps app or its Maps web page.
So much for 'unlimited': AT&T’s latest smartphone plans offer new ways to limit 'unlimited' data
Internet privacy:Here’s how to see who’s tracking you across the Web right nowApple touts how it keeps no location-history records, with all personalization done by its Maps app on your own device. But neither iOS 13 nor Android 10 (vendors of mass-market Android phones are slowly adopting it after its debut on Google’s own Pixel phones and others shipping with unaltered versions of Google’s software) can stop the location-tracking habits of one company.
That would be your wireless carrier, which will establish your phone’s location in the course of providing it with service from one transmitter to the next. This network-based tracking needs no help from iOS or Android; it happens even on minimalist burner phones.
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
The four nationwide carriers also keep records of your location -- for periods that they don’t advertise on their sites.
So we asked to see if the retention periods previously reported elsewhere had changed. Here’s how long each of the big four keeps this location history:
• AT&T: five years• Sprint: 18 months • T-Mobile: two years • Verizon: one year Although you can’t do anything to speed up those timelines, at least law enforcement investigators can’t look at that data without getting a court to issue a warrant first. Credit for that goes to an authority sometimes higher than even Apple or Google: the Supreme Court. In June 2018, the high court ruled that warrantless police inspections of historic cell-site location information violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance, a media property of Verizon.) Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.