Passive-Location Tracking in iOS: Why It Happens and How to Stop It
Nothing drudges up images of a 1984-esque Apple-enabled conspiracy quite like the claim that an app is tracking your every movement with location tracking in iOS. It makes Apple’s famous Orwellian inspired commercial almost ironic.
In a response to the report that Foursquare “tracks your every movement, even when the app is closed”, Forbes recently released this quick and easy guide to avoiding being tracked by disabling a feature called “Background App Refresh” in iOS.
While this guide is great for those who quickly want to subdue worries over location-tracking apps, we wanted to parse the reasoning at work behind an app tracking you in the first place. Hopefully this will work to fight some of the paranoia about privacy that seems to be building around apps these days.
What is background-app refresh?
Background-app refresh is related to the multitasking feature of iOS, which allows apps to perform tasks in the background while you are using another app. Multitasking was introduced with iOS 7 so that you could switch between apps, resuming activity on one and being able to pick up right where you left off, all without slowing down your phone or draining battery life unnecessarily.
With multitasking, some apps are set to a suspended state so that they are not actively taking up your system’s resources. So you don’t miss out on an app’s best features, certain tasks can be carried out in the background. For example, an app can check if new content is available to have it ready for your viewing when you relaunch the app. But to lessen the effect on battery life, background refreshing is usually scheduled for times like when your phone is plugged into a power source or being actively used.
When not scheduled for optimal battery-saving times, apps can also schedule background refreshing based on your location. This is what’s happening in the case of Foursquare.
Why passive-location tracking in iOS?
On the face of it, it seems creepy and weird that an app would track your location, especially when the app appears to be closed, but there are two main reasons why an app would use passive location-tracking features. The first, more sinister reason is data mining, meaning that an app sells information about its users to advertisers and other third parties.
The best and worst of data mining can be seen in this Lifehacker article on health apps that sell their user’s data. The worry here is that data collected by health apps might be sold to insurance companies to help them weed out problematic clients or force these clients to pay premium rates. Lifehacker notes, importantly, that these apps don’t currently sell information to insurance companies, but that “data collection in fitness apps is important because of what might happen. Right now, nothing much is happening . . . ” And they’re right, the fear is in the “what if?”
What we do know is that, right now, there are a few apps selling user data to third parties and this is to the benefit of everyone. For example, the GPS-tracking app Strava is selling its data to city planners to help them understand where cyclists could use a new bike lane and Ototo helps planners understand how people use public transportation. All in all, not so bad.
Another reason why an app would use passive-location tracking in iOS is because an essential feature or function of the app relies on it. In the case of Foursquare, its constant location tracking is integral to its new passive notifications feature, which are push note-like messages sent to users’ phones when they’re near a particular establishment. This means that if you’re walking around a new neighborhood, Foursquare can send you a notification to let you know that you’re close by to a restaurant with a great tuna melt.
How to take the reins
The most direct way to handle issues with your app’s background activity is going to Settings > General > Background App Refresh. If you turn off Background App Refresh, no app can updated in the background. From this screen you can also manually adjust it so that only some apps can update in the background.
The second way you can deal with these apps is to force an app to quit by dragging it from the multitasking display, you can find this area by double-clicking your home button. This means it won’t be performing any of its background activities until you relaunch the app. So, this is a more short-term solution for location tracking in iOS.