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Enough already — you’re missing out on a huge chunk of your smartphone’s functionality 5 Bad iPhone Habits You Should Break Today 5 Bad iPhone Habits You Should Break Today Think you're a responsible smartphone user? Reckon you're saving battery by killing all those apps? Think again. Read More by turning off GPS. Despite this, the excuses for doing so continue to flood in.

Whether it’s to conserve battery life or to stop the NSA tracking your every move, it’s likely your reasons for crippling your device’s ability to locate you aren’t justified. So stop already.

Maps, Geo-Tagging & Tinder

The GPS functionality that comes with every iPhone forms a large part of what is frequently referred to as the “core smartphone experience.” To demonstrate the point, here are just a few of the apps I have installed on my iPhone that use my GPS co-ordinates almost every single day:

  • Google Maps — for finding cycle routes, not getting lost and estimating distances and travel times.
  • Evernote — for tagging notes by location.
  • Messages — for sharing my location with contacts and finding people.
  • Strava, RunKeeper and other sports apps — for tracking cycling and other physical activity.
  • Camera, Instagram and other photo apps — for geotagging images, finding nearby images and tagging locations.
  • Happy Cow, Urban Spoon and other discovery apps — for finding places to eat and things to do.
  • Yahoo Weather — for accurate hyper-local weather, sunrise and moon phase; handy when travelling.
  • PTV, a local public transport app — for quickly finding the next tram or train out of here.
  • Commbank, a banking app — for locating nearby ATMs and branches.
  • Guardian and other news apps — for providing news local to your location, handy when travelling.
  • Safari — occasionally when websites request it, to make browsing faster and easier.

These are only the apps I use, there are many more out there that absolutely rely on GPS to perform their task — off the top of my head both Tinder and AirBnB spring to mind. Sick of living without all this convenience? Then you should probably…

Control What Accesses GPS Instead

Allowing every app you have installed on your device access to your location is a bad idea, particularly if you have been disabling GPS outright for battery reasons. Guess what? If you manage which apps can access GPS properly, battery life shouldn’t be negatively impacted with everyday use.


Head to Settings > Privacy > Location Services for a comprehensive list of apps that have requested your location and the privileges you have granted them. If you’ve had GPS off till now, the entire list will be disallowed so you’ll need to make exceptions.

This menu also employs several symbols to denote GPS activity, by way of a pointer. A purple pointer indicates an app that has recently used your location, a gray pointer means the app has used your location within the last 24 hours and an outline of a pointer indicates an app currently using a geo-fence How You Can Use Geofencing to Improve Your Privacy & Security How You Can Use Geofencing to Improve Your Privacy & Security Geofencing uses GPS to define geographical boundaries, and can prove very useful in managing your personal security. Read More .

If you see any grey or purple indicators you don’t like the look of, revoke that app’s privileges. Note that any apps set to “While Using” will only use GPS when you’re actively using the app (a good example is the iOS Camera app, which geotags images as they are taken).

GPS Technology Has Come A Long Way

The GPS in your new iPhone isn’t like the GPS chip in your ageing iPhone 4S. While GPS technology has been mainstream for many years now, the iPhone 5s represented somewhat of a breakthrough in positioning technology thanks to the M7 co-processor.

The M7 (and the current generation’s M8) is a co-processor designed with efficiency in mind that uses very little battery life. It tracks movement, so in addition to doing things like telling you how far you’ve walked today, it can buffer location data over short distances. This reduces the frequency that your iPhone wakes up the main CPU to ask the GPS where you currently are.

The GPS chip in your iPhone doesn’t actually use very much power, but waking your CPU up to register your location does. This is how the motion co-processor helps save power, particularly when your phone is asleep in your pocket.

Paranoid About Being Tracked?

Some users turn off GPS because they are paranoid about being tracked — by apps, by malware, by stalkers, by law enforcement and government agencies. The truth of the matter is that turning off GPS isn’t going to stop your location and identity being revealed by agencies who really want to find out where you are.

In March of this year the US Supreme Court ruled that the use of GPS trackers represents a form of search, and thus requires a warrant. So far smartphones have yet to be used in the same manner — only dedicated trackers (like those fitted to vehicles) have been used, but the technology is essentially identical.

Simply having a mobile phone — even a dumb phone — provides authorities with the means to track you via triangulation. Triangulation can be used to locate you using three cell towers (for example, if you’re lost) and as proof that you were in a specific location at a given time in court. Even if you don’t have a GPS chip, you can’t beat the cell towers if your phone is on.

If you really are a secret agent on the run then you’ll want to avoid leaving a cellular footprint or paper trail at all. In Australia (and many other countries), you need a passport or valid form of ID to sign up for a mobile pre-paid plan or contract. When I visited South Africa, I experienced the same policy (and new SIMs expire after six months inactivity). In many countries, your name is quite literally tied to your phone number.

In the USA, use of a pre-paid “burner” phone on an MVNO Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA tracking you using your phone's positioning coordinates? Prepaid phones known colloquially as "burners" can provide you with partial privacy. Read More goes some way toward obfuscating your identity, but even these are not immune to location via triangulation and other tracking techniques. Switching burners and SIM cards frequently may do the trick, but that’s not viable for those of us who enjoy using our smartphones.

If you really are concerned about your boss or a stalker tracking you, you need to make sure that no spy software has been installed on your iPhone The Dangers of iPhone Spy Software & How To Detect It The Dangers of iPhone Spy Software & How To Detect It Considering spying on an iPhone? Think you've got a compromised device? Here's what you need to know. Read More  (and Android users should ensure they’re malware-free Malware on Android: The 5 Types You Really Need to Know About Malware on Android: The 5 Types You Really Need to Know About Malware can affect mobile as well as desktop devices. But don't be afraid: a bit of knowledge and the right precautions can protect you from threats like ransomware and sextortion scams. Read More ). iPhone users should also be aware that their location can be shared indefinitely from the Messages app (which has plenty of legitimate uses Why Tracking Your Significant Other's Location Isn't Always Evil Why Tracking Your Significant Other's Location Isn't Always Evil But is it really so wrong to track your partner's movements, assuming it's consensual? Read More ), which anyone could do given access to your unlocked phone.

Enable GPS Now

You can enable GPS on your iPhone (and iPad) under Settings > Privacy > Location Services. You can also control which apps can access your location information from this menu.

Still not convinced? I’d love to hear your reasons why — maybe you’re using an old iPhone? Maybe you only use your phone occasionally?

Image credits: Canberra, 2013 (Greg Wass)

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