At its World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) 2019, Apple announced a number of new location setting features that will make it easier for iPhone users to protect their location data and prevent abuse of this data by third parties.
Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi introduced the new location settings on stage where he said:
“At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right and we engineer it into everything we do.”
He went on to say that this year Apple is building more protections into location settings in iOS 13 – the operating system which powers Apple’s iPhone devices. These features include:
- The ability to share your location with third-party apps just once and require it to ask you again next time it wants to use location data
- Background tracking alerts which give you reports on how apps use location data if you’ve given them permission to use that data continuously
- WiFi and Bluetooth protections which prevent third-party apps that don’t have permission to use your location from scanning for WiFi and Bluetooth signals to try and infer your location
Apple’s announcement comes after a number of high profile abuses of location data have been exposed in the last year. At the end of 2018, The New York Times reported that many popular smartphone apps were sharing precise location with third parties as frequently as every two seconds. Another report from The New York Times revealed that Google maintains a database of detailed location records called Sensorvault which is used by law enforcement to get information about devices and Google accounts that were near the scene of a crime. Facebook also recently started sharing real-time snapshots of users’ movements with selected partners through its creepy “Movement Maps” service and this month, Twitter “accidentally” shared location data with third parties.
In addition to the ramp up in location data abuse, many apps state in their documentation that they will still attempt to infer your location based on WiFi and Bluetooth signals. For example, Facebook’s Privacy Basics documentation states that even if you disable location services on your devices, it may still understand your location by using information about your internet connection.
Apple’s new iOS location setting features should prevent many similar types of location data abuses happening going forward. Plus, they should make it harder for apps like Facebook to infer your location when you’ve turned off location services on your device.
However, in the wake of the announcement, some people have questioned Apple’s commitment to privacy. These questions come after a recent report revealed that despite Apple’s strong public privacy stance, many hidden app trackers on iPhones were sharing sensitive data with third parties. This data sharing often occurred without the user’s knowledge and sometimes included location data.
These enhanced location privacy settings are available to developers now via the iOS 13 developer beta and are predicted to rolled out to all users as part of a full iOS 13 release in mid-September.