location privacy

Apple already offers fairly tight control of location data privacy. We can choose whether or not to share it at all. We can choose to share it or not with specific apps. We can specify whether an app is allowed to access location data in the background, or only while we are actively using it. And we can see which apps are accessing the data at any given time.

But as we’ve been reminded this morning, that doesn’t entirely solve the problem …

NY Times investigation found a number of serious issues with the way both iOS and Android apps access and use location data:

  • Patterns may be specific enough to identify specific individuals
  • Accuracy may be sufficient to reveal which room you’re in
  • Locations visited can reveal health issues, like skin problems or weight struggles
  • Data may be shared with dozens of different companies
  • It may be store for months or even years
  • Companies may not properly disclose how they use the data

iOS does allow control of just how much location accuracy is made available to apps, from a couple of miles at one end to as close as a few feet at the other, thanks to the use of additional sensor data.

The problem? It’s app developers, not users, who get to make that choice (choosing lower accuracy levels reduces battery usage.)

What I’d like to see is users offered greater control of location data privacy by choosing to share a precise location or a more general one. To keep things simple, I’d propose that this is either Exact or City-only.

If you allow access to your Exact location, then that would allow developers to choose their desired level of accuracy. If you choose City, then your location is set to the centre of your current city.

Obviously for something like a map app, you’d need to allow Exact location sharing. The same is true of some other apps, like ones that tell me when to leave an airport lounge for my gate. But for many apps – like weather ones, or city-wide Whats On guides – City would be plenty good enough.

I know some weather apps claim they offer hyper-local forecasts, but let’s be honest: this is mostly marketing hype. Even Dark Sky, which I’ve definitely found to be the most accurate app, falls down when it comes to predicting whether – and when – it will rain in my exact location.

And even if hyper-local forecasts did work, if I care about the weather, that’s because I’m heading out into it, not remaining in one place. Unless an app allows me to plug in my itinerary, and tailor the forecast to where I’ll be when, it’s irrelevant.

This could be implemented in Settings, with two app-specific controls rather than one. The existing one: Allow location access Never/While Using the App/Always. And a second one: Share Exact Location/City Only.

Setting permissions to City Only would immediately remove most of the privacy concerns, while still giving sufficient functionality for many apps. And it would be entirely in line with Apple’s philosophy of minimizing the amount of personal data it collects.

What’s your view? Would you like this level of control of your location data privacy? Or do you have enough control already? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: Shutterstock

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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