How Is Your Phone Tracking You?


Believe it or not, right now your phone is tracking your location. It may not be quite Big Brother, but your phone is tracking your every move. It knows where you live and where you work, based on the amount of time you spend there and how many trips you make. Most of us have cottoned on to this fact. While deep down we find it slightly disturbing, we turn a blind eye and hope that it won’t lead to the dystopian state in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s socially disturbing Brave New World.

Our phones do a lot of smart things we are unaware of. Software on Apple and Android devices record the locations in your daily routine. Everything you say to Google Now is recorded. Check your voice and audio history and you’ll find it all there. That’s not all. All of your web searches and clicks are also saved in your Google accounts history. Apple Health tracks your activity.

Creepy right? Of course, it depends on how paranoid a person you are, and for most of us we have nothing to hide so what’s the big deal? Some feel it’s a useful tool, while others see it as invasive.

You can even download an iPhone tracker to track other iPhones. It allows you track the location of your spouse, friend, child or co-worker. That is slightly intrusive. OK it is just about acceptable for over anxious parents keeping tabs on their kids, but really? Isn’t it just a tool for the suspicious?

What are Sensors?

phone track sensor

Back to the matter in hand. Your phone is equipped with sensors. That’s the nuts and bolts of how your phone is able to track you. Mobile tech is getting so smart that even small app developers are able to access data about everything you do from your phone.

So what are sensors? Sensors are pieces of tech that measure a physical quantity and convert that information into a signal. This signal can be read by an individual or used by an app. Every handset has sensors, but it will depend on your handset as to how many different types of sensors it has. There are many different types of sensors, but the more common ones include:

  • The accelerometer – measures orientation and movement
  • Pedometer sensor – tracks the steps you’ve taken throughout the day
  • The gyroscope – measures angular rotation and gives more accuracy to the accelerometer reading
  • The magnetometer – detects Magnetic North for location services
  • GPS chip – plots your position on a map
  • Proximity sensor – recognises when you move your phone near to your face to make a call
  • Phone sensors – there are a range of sensors to increase the quality of your snaps
  • Environmental sensors – measures temperature, barometric pressure and light (found in higher end phones)
  • Fingerprint sensors – for security access, as in the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S7.

Most of the sensors help you massively, such as helping to save the battery on your phone. The sensors themselves are just hardware in your phone, but how phone manufacturers or app developers tap into them is more of a concern.

Should you be worried?

I’m trying not to be alarmist, but how data is being used and stored and by whom is a concern. A recent report in The Telegraph highlighted how high street shops are secretly tracking customers using smartphones. The problem is, many people don’t even know their phones are being monitored. While the information itself is being used fairly innocuously by stores to entice you to shop with them, there is the important question of security (and an invasion of privacy).

Renata Samson, the Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch, expresses concerns; “not only is it an invasion of privacy but it’s a security risk. Nobody knows how safe these networks are, and who is to say that the Wi-Fi network you join is legitimate.” While the bulk of tracking is used purely for marketing services, there is a question hanging over whether data from sensors can be used in malicious ways.

The jury is out. But if you’re erring on the side of keeping your private life private you may want to take more control over your phone security by disabling it’s location tracker and or its stored history.

How to disable or manage your location tracker

Go to location services and privacy settings on your phone. The options in location services are quite complex. If you’re not bothered by the tracking you may just want to leave everything switched on. Otherwise, you can delve into your settings and toggle different apps and services on and off, to revoke access where you see fit.

Here’s how to turn frequent locations off:

Apple devices

  1. Click settings
  2. Go to Privacy
  3. Select Location Services (here you’ll see the apps that are using your location, so you can toggle those you don’t want to leave on)
  4. Scroll down to privacy for different features. Frequent locations keeps track of where you visit most, plots it on a map and guesses where you will visit next. Disable this feature to prevent personal location history being logged on your device.

Android devices

  1. Go to settings
  2. Tap location
  3. Tap Google Location Settings
  4. Tap Location Reporting and Location History (slide to off for each one)
  5. You can also delete location history at the bottom of the screen under Location History. You’ll need to repeat this process for each Google Account on your device.

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