Geolocating -- in other words, using various mobile device signals to pinpoint your geographic location -- helps feed data into a number of the apps you use daily. Your map navigation, for example, relies on satellite signals that track your cell phone's GPS, and your weather app determines local weather patterns based on your current location. Geolocating, however, can present privacy issues since it keeps constant track of your location and records a history of your activity. Plus, it can drain your battery if left on for prolonged periods of time. Disable the feature to prevent both.
GPS positioning relies on satellites signaling the GPS receivers in your phone to determine your location. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, high-quality GPS systems can pinpoint your phone at an accuracy of as little as 3 meters, but the method is often ineffective in urban and metropolitan areas, where signals are blocked by high buildings. GPS signals are also affected by weather, so location services features will have a harder time finding you on a stormy day than on a clear and sunny one.
Cell Tower Locating
Cell tower triangulation measures the distance between your cell phone and the nearest cell tower and then uses this information to calculate your approximate geophysical location. Cell tower triangulation is most effective when your phone is successfully picked up by three or more towers. Location pinpointing becomes much less accurate when you're outside of a densely populated area, where towers are less plentiful -- for example, at a rural farm.
In combination with -- and sometimes in the absence of -- GPS and cell tower signals, Wi-Fi triangulation determines your geolocation. This technology measures your distance from nearby Wi-Fi hot spots and is an especially effective way to determine positioning within buildings or in major metropolitan areas, where GPS signals are scanty. A 2008 Ars Technica articles states that Wi-Fi-based locating offers the most accurate results of all methods, since the signal is capable of traveling more places -- including through buildings and within heavily populated areas, where many Wi-Fi hot spots are present.
Your cell phone's location services feature uses a combination of methods -- cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS and, when enabled, even a discoverable Bluetooth signal -- to determine your geolocation. Disabling the feature blocks others from pulling data about your location and other device activity, but it's important to remember that it also disables device tracking -- like the Find My iPhone feature, for example -- that helps you find your phone should it get lost or stolen. Furthermore, location services may still be activated during emergency calls to help first responders in determining your position.
Disabling Location Services
On an iOS device, disable location services by launching the Settings app, selecting "Privacy," and toggling the slider for "Location Services." On an Android device, launch the Settings app, tap "Location Services" and clear the boxes for both "Location Services" and "GPS Satellites." On a BlackBerry device, enter the "Options" menu and select "Advanced Options," then click "GPS" and disable "Location Aiding." Windows Phone users launch the Settings app, select "Location" and then disable "Location Services." Note that apps requiring location services -- like weather tickers or shopping apps -- may not function properly.
- Search Engine Land: Cell Phone Triangulation Accuracy Is All Over the Map
- Ars Technica: Where GPS Won’t Do, WiFi Triangulation Might
- GPS.gov: GPS Accuracy
- Apple Support: iOS 7: Understanding Location Services
- Google Android Support: Enable Android Location Services
- BlackBerry Support: Turn Off Location Aiding
- Windows Phone Support: Location and My Privacy FAQ
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