When you go out somewhere, who do you tell: your partner, maybe? Your roommate? Your kids, or your parents? Your cat? If you’re active on social media, the candid answer is that you’re quite possibly telling everybody among your friends and followers.
Tracking location is something your phone does all the time, and your social media apps harvest that information for a number of reasons. Some of them are benign and can be useful or downright comforting. Some are less so and can pose a threat to your privacy or even your physical safety. Here’s what you’ll need to know about it.
The Ins and Outs of Location Tracking on Social Media
Your mobile device’s hardware and its operating system work together to monitor your location. The primary location tool is your GPS chipset, of course. If you can see the sky from where you are, your phone can determine your location to within a yard or two.
That only works when you’re outdoors and aboveground, so your devices have other tricks they can use for location-finding. One is by monitoring which cellular towers your phone “pings” as you go about your business. Another checks the Wi-Fi networks your phone finds along the way: those locations (IP addresses) can be looked up and used to define your location in something pretty close to real-time.
Your device (and your social media app) can even use subtler cues, like your phone’s accelerometer (to tell when you’re in motion) and altimeter (to monitor how far up you’ve gone) to place you accurately on a specific floor of a given building. When you have all of those things enabled, your devices can potentially pinpoint you within a given room.
Why Use Location Tracking on Social Media?
Let’s be clear that social-media location tracking isn’t necessarily something that’s being done to you. The whole point of social media is to provide ways to engage with your friends and family, and the community at large, and your location plays a part in that. There will be many times you’ll deliberately choose to put your location on the record, and your location data is often used in ways that explicitly benefit you.
A few of these beneficial uses of your location include:
- Organizing get-togethers with your friends and family, on either a planned or improvised basis. If you make your location available to the other participants, they can come and find you pretty easily as long as they’re on the same social media platform.
- Supporting businesses and causes in your community. When you “check in” from their location, you’re giving that business (or attraction, or charity) your endorsement. It’s some of the best advertising an entrepreneur can hope for.
- Keeping yourself safe. Sharing your location is a way to make sure someone has your back when out in public, or meeting up with online acquaintances for the first time in real life.
- Finding businesses and services that are in your vicinity, when you’re away from home.
- Giving the social media platform a tool to help identify you. If someone creates a lookalike account and claims to be you (admittedly, something you probably aren’t thinking about), having access to your location data gives the platform a quick way to check which of you is the legitimate account.
- If your social media platforms are part of your “personal brand,” then checking in frequently as you go about your daily life can also be part of your growth strategy.
- Seeing ads that are actually personalized, and about things you’re interested in. Most people would rather not see ads at all, but if you’re going to get them they might as well be pertinent to you.
Obviously, not all of these apply to everyone, and some are fairly niche. Overall, though, there are lots of perfectly good reasons to use location tracking.
The Downside of Social Media Location Tracking
That being said, there are also a number of compelling reasons why tracking location is bad for you as a user of a given social media platform. There are so many that no list could possibly be comprehensive, but a few of the most obvious include:
- The possibility of stalking and harassment. This is the flip side of protecting yourself through location tracking: it allows stalkers, vindictive exes and pretty much anyone else to find you as well if you share your location. It’s especially concerning for those in abusive or controlling relationships.
- It gives scammers a lot of additional leverage. Phone scammers often “spoof” caller ID to show a number that’s local to you, or even your own number, which you’re more likely to answer. It also gives them the info they need for plausible stories to con you with (“My kids go to Acme Elementary as well …”). Aside from that, keeping location services turned on lets them match up your name to your address (anyone can do that) to target you personally, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all scam.
- When you check in from a popular vacation spot, you’re telling any burglars in your area that your home is empty, and ready to be looted. That doesn’t make for a happy homecoming.
How To Turn Off Location Tracking
Keeping location services on, or turning them off, comes down to deciding whether the benefits outweigh your potential exposure to harm. If you decide you’d rather opt out, you’ll need to change those settings. For your convenience, here’s a quick guide to doing that.
Android 9 and Previous Versions
On a phone running any version of Android up to and including Android 9, tap the Settings icon, then Connections, and finally Location to turn location services on and off (there may be some slight differences between different phones and versions of Android). This turns off location services for all apps, so you’ll need to turn it back on again to use GPS navigation or other location-centric apps.
Android 10 and Newer Versions
Newer versions of Android let you control permissions on an app-by-app basis, which is much more practical. Tap Settings, then Apps & Notifications and See All Apps. Scroll down the list and tap each of your social media apps, then find and turn off location services for each of them. Alternatively, you can set it to ask every time before using location services or to only allow it while the app is active, but those options aren’t helpful if you always have the app open.
iOS and iPadOS
On an Apple device, tap Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services. You can turn off Location Services entirely using the toggle at the top of your screen, or leave them on for the phone as a whole but turn them off for specific apps. Scroll down to your social media apps, tap them one after the other and choose whether or when each app can use location services.
On a given social media platform, you may need to tweak other settings as well to maximize your privacy. A few examples include:
Facebook has already dropped several location-driven services from its platform, including Nearby Friends, Background Location and Location History. Location History will be viewable until August 2022, but if you want to delete it now you can find it in your Profile Settings. You may also want to turn off the “Background Location” setting (Android app only), which lets Facebook track your location even when you aren’t using the app. Bear in mind that even with Location Services turned off, Facebook will still use tools like your IP address or Wi-Fi connection to guess your location.
Unlike Facebook, Instagram’s default is to not use location settings. Turning them off on your phone is all you need to do, but you can manually add a location (if you want to) when uploading a photo.
Twitter makes little use of your location, but there is one setting you might want to look at. Tap Settings, then Privacy and Safety, and then Location Information. You’ll see an option labeled “Add location information to your Tweets.” If that’s turned on, you can turn it off for more privacy. You also have the option of removing all location information attached to your tweets, if that setting has been turned on until now.
It’s Entirely Your Decision
There’s no right or wrong answer here. There are good reasons to allow location sharing and good reasons to block it. Ultimately it’s a very personal choice, like deciding whether to make your account public or private.
On the whole, though, your best bet may be to turn off location services for your social media on at least a trial basis and see what you think. If it turns out that a feature you really like doesn’t work properly with the location turned off, you can simply turn it back on again. Or you may find that two or three apps work perfectly well without location, and only one actually needs it. You won’t know until you try.
- The Guardian – Zuckerberg Sued by DC Attorney General over Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal
- National Public Radio – TikTok to Pay $92 Million to Settle Class-Action Suit Over ‘Theft’ of Personal Data
- Google Android Help – Choose Which Apps Use Your Android Phone’s Location
- Apple Help – Turn Location Services and GPS On or Off on Your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch
- Facebook Help Center – Facebook and Location
- Instagram Help Center – How Do I Add a Location Before Sharing my Photo or Video on Instagram?