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Smartphone location tracking: everything you need to know

Ae you being tracked, and do you need to worry?

Yes, your smartphone is spying on you. The real question is, should you care?

Android smartphones

If you opted in to use Google's location services when you first set up your Android phone, Google is taking location data from your device in a way similar to that of iOS devices. Google's smartphone OS will send GPS information and Wi-Fi access-point locations, as well as your unique device identifier, back to the search giant, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Just like Apple, Google uses this data to maintain a location database. Reportedly the company also uses the data to better serve you ads and other content relevant to your location. Google has also said that all data sent back to it is anonymised, despite researchers' findings that each user's unique device ID is included.

Google used to obtain Wi-Fi access-point location information by way of its Google Maps Street View cars, but ceased that practice after Google's cars were found to be saving fragments of users' Wi-Fi data transmissions along with access-point IDs.

Microsoft Windows Phone 7

Seeing its competitors getting hit with heavy criticism, Microsoft recently posted a Q&A on its Windows Phone 7 blog explaining its location-data collection practices. Similar to other mobile device makers, Microsoft says that it "assembles and maintains" a database of cell-tower and Wi-Fi access-point locations. Microsoft achieves this by collecting data from a fleet of cars, as well as by collecting Wi-Fi access-point information from mobile devices.

The company says that it will collect Wi-Fi location information from your phone only if you turn on location services, you are using a location-based application that requests location information, and your Wi-Fi radio is turned on. "If any of these conditions are not met," Microsoft says, "the mobile device will not survey Wi-Fi access points."

However, Microsoft also states that if a phone's GPS is turned on, it will collect the device's "observed longitude and latitude" as well as the direction and speed the device is traveling. Presumably, Microsoft uses that data for a traffic information database, but the company does not explain the practice further.

Apps that eavesdrop

If you think the location-data practices of smartphone makers are bad, you'll love what some app makers are doing. Some popular iOS and Android apps, such as Color and ShopKick, turn on your phone's microphone to listen to background noise and report back to their creators what they hear.

It turns out that these apps aren't fishing for juicy tidbits about your life; rather, they are listening for sound patterns. Color and IntoNow, for example, both perk up your smartphone's ears to help create on-the-fly social networks, their makers say. By comparing the sound patterns across many phones, the creators claim, the apps can better determine if people are in the same room, or watching the same TV program.

As for the makers of ShopKick, they say that their app is listening for a special tone (inaudible to our ears) so that it knows when you are in a certain store that offers a ShopKick discount.

To be clear, your words aren't being recorded and aren't being sent anywhere, the companies claim.

NEXT PAGE: Your location for sale

  1. Do you really need to worry?
  2. Android smartphones
  3. Your location for sale

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