Of all the connectivity options in a modern smartphone – mobile broadband, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and so on – the most complex and fascinating is probably the Global Positioning System, better known as GPS. What started off as a US Department of Defence project launched in 1995 has evolved into an incredibly useful technology; a network which can track the location of a GPS receiver almost anywhere in the world to within an accuracy of a few metres. However, there are both upsides and downsides to having GPS technology (usually displayed as ‘Location’) in most phones, and the more you know about how it works, the more control you have over what your phone can and can’t do with your location data.
How does location tracking work?
GPS is made up of a network of 32 satellites orbiting the Earth, which are constantly broadcasting their location and the time measured by their internal clock. GPS receivers on the ground (like the one in your phone) receive data from four of these satellites, and then do some complex calculations to determine your position and to correct for the time difference. At any point on earth, there are always at least six satellites visible, and there are usually around nine – so if one fails, there are plenty to act as a backup.
How does your phone use it?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a new smartphone that doesn’t come with an inbuilt GPS receiver, simply because there are a vast number of uses for it. The most obvious is for map applications like Google Maps or Apple Maps, which can give you directions and information using your phone’s location, and there are many others: Facebook uses your location for its Nearby Friends service and to target advertising; FourSquare uses it to give you tailored shopping or dining suggestions; weather apps use it for relevant information, and of course there’s Tinder!
The point of this is that many apps use your location data for their services, and whilst this is intended to be useful, it can also be something you want to avoid. Google, for instance, stores data on where you’ve been throughout the day, and Facebook Messenger allows you to see where your friends are messaging you from if their location is turned on – both of which you may think are anywhere from interesting to downright creepy.
How do you decide which information to share?
Of course, it’s not just your smartphone that you need to worry about in terms of tracking your every move. According to Samsung, its smart TVs are keeping tabs on you too…