The dos and don’ts of location sharing

Nearly every app asks for it, but most don’t need it.

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It’s easy to say “yes” when an app or website asks for your location data just to get past the pop-up and back to scrolling, but it pays to be thoughtful about who you share it with and why. More often than not, it's more information than apps and websites really need to know about you.

Like other kinds of personal information, location data is presented by companies as a trade-off: consumers willingly expose where they are, usually for a more convenient user experience; the companies in turn gather crucial intel about customers and, more often than not, resell that data to third-parties for additional profit. Those third parties, according to Cooper Quintin, a security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, can include data brokers and advertisers, as well as law enforcement, bounty hunters, journalists and just about anyone else with the money to purchase this information. It's one of the reasons we feel like our devices “listen” to us — they probably don't hear you telling a friend that you’ve been really craving fast food, but they do know that there’s a McDonald’s nearby, and will serve up an advertisement for its french fries.

Because there aren’t federal laws or regulations currently in place to fully protect consumer information, it falls on individual users to navigate how they want that information to be spread. As you install new apps, don’t blindly agree to share location data, even if you think you have nothing to hide. “It's better just not to generate it in the first place,” Quintin said.

Is there ever a good reason to share this sensitive data with a company? A good rule of thumb is to avoid giving out location information unless the app requires it to function, according to Megan Iorio, senior counsel and amicus director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. A maps app might need it to give you real-time directions; food delivery apps probably can get by with a simple address. Websites may ask for location permissions to enable convenience features, like a weather service, but will generate the same results from a zip code at a much lower risk. Even with the caveat that sharing location data is unavoidable in some instances, Iorio cautioned that providing apps or sites blanket access is never a good idea. “If you wind up needing location services, then you'll figure that out after using the app, but maybe the best strategy is to just tell everybody no until you actually realize that you need it,” Iorio said.

It's also best practice to revoke location permissions for any apps or sites you no longer use, or may have enabled thoughtlessly in the past. You can see what apps use your location data by going into the settings of your smartphone and navigating to the location sharing tab, usually in the privacy and security settings of most devices. That will list all of the apps with access to your location information, and give options to toggle it on or off. Apple, Samsung, Google and others all provide specific instructions on their websites. Popular browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Safari, also provide specific instructions on how to disable location sharing. Generally it's best not to choose "always allow" or similarly phrased options in-browser — instead wait for the pop-up requesting access and, if it's necessary, share location data on a case-by-case basis.

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