How to stop your iPhone from tracking your location

Key Points
  • Your iPhone tracks your location for a variety of reasons.
  • It tracks you to calibrate sensors and to improve services, but also to show you ads.
  • Here's how to see how your iPhone tracks you and take control over what it logs.
You might be surprised to learn your iPhone tracks where you go.

The New York Times published a story on Thursday about how lots of companies are able to track your location data and even identify people when that information is supposed to be anonymous.

Apple's latest iPhone software, iOS 13, helps protect you more than ever before, and lets you know which apps are tracking your location and when. But your iPhone is still tracking everywhere you go, often by default.

For example, there's a System Services page in iOS that shows 20 different ways your iPhone tracks your location. It does so for a variety of legitimate reasons, but most people probably don't know this page even exists.

Your iPhone uses your location for HomeKit to identify if you're away or near home -- one way it can automatically turn on your lights when you get home or turn them off when you leave, for example. There's also a setting to set the time zone automatically based on your location, or to make sure it's searching for the right cellular networks. Another setting can be turned on to share your location with other people, like in the "Find My" app.

But there are a few places where you might not want your iPhone to track you at all. Apple tracks your location for "Location-Based Apple Ads," for example. It can use your location for "Location-Based alerts," or to let you know about merchants where you used Apple Pay to buy something.

More importantly, there's an entire section called "Significant Locations" where Apple stores the places you go frequently — like work, home, or anywhere you've traveled. Apple uses this information for some legitimate purposes, too, like improving "Photo memories" so it can send you recaps of pictures you've taken in certain places. It can also improve your results in Maps, Calendar and other apps. These are all "end-to-end encrypted," which means the information is scrambled on your phone, and "cannot be read by Apple," according to the settings page.

But most of my colleagues who saw this for the first time didn't like it, even if Apple does keep the location data private, largely because they didn't know this area existed. So let's change that.

Here's how to see how your iPhone is tracking your location and how to manage what it tracks.

  • Open Settings on your iPhone.
  • Tap "Privacy."
  • Choose "Location Services."
  • Scroll to the bottom and select "System Services."

You'll see a page that looks like this:

All the ways your iPhone system tracks your location. Some are necessary, others aren't.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The hollow purple arrow means that Apple might receive your location "under certain conditions." So, for HomeKit, which has that arrow on my phone, it would only access my location if I'm using HomeKit to control my smart home based on my location and if the app needs to know when I'm home or not. The regular purple arrow shows that a system service has recently used your location, and the gray arrow shows that it has logged your location in the last 24 hours.

Turning some of these off could cause problems with your phone. You probably need your location information on for finding cellular networks properly, for example, and for properly configuring the compass so Apple Maps knows which way you're facing. But, you can also safely turn off "Location-Based Apple Ads" or things like "Popular Near Me," "iPhone Analytics" and "Share my location" if you don't ever share your location with friends and family.

Now open up "Significant Locations."

A list of lots of the places I've been in "Significant Locations" on my iPhone.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

This will show you a list of many of the places your iPhone has logged your location, again maybe just to improve some of your experiences. And again, Apple says it doesn't share this with anyone. But, you might be surprised to see that it tracks much of where you go.

My iPhone knows I stopped in the Pentagon in March.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

My iPhone knows I was in Seattle in October, Miami in November and many other places. When I tap in, it has an exact log of where I was in each city, right down to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a restaurant I stopped at in Bristol, Rhode Island, this month.

My iPhone knows exactly where I ate during a trip to Rhode Island.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Again, Apple says all of this is be stored safely on your device and isn't seen by Apple or other companies. It's also protected behind Face ID or Touch ID, so other folks can't just take your iPhone and see where you've been.

But you should know that your iPhone knows where you're going, and that you can turn it off if this makes you uncomfortable. To turn it off, go back to the top of Significant Locations page and toggle the button to off.

Finally, you should also just double-check that you know how your apps are using your location. To do this:

  • Open Settings.
  • Open Privacy.
  • Select Location Services.
  • Scroll down the page.
A list of the apps that can track me. I can manage them individually on this page.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You'll see a list of the apps that have access to your location. Tap into each to choose whether you never want them to use your location, while you're using it or all the time. Generally, you want apps only to use your location while you're using them, because lots of apps need to know your location. A retail app might want to show you the closest store, for example, or a ride-hailing app needs to know where to pick you up. The decision is up to you.

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