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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.

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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)

  1. Carl Snyder
    July 17, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    I work in a factory with access to my cell phone only during breaks and poor signal while in the building. Why should I leave GPS on burning up battery? My cell phone is usable for 2 days with GPS off, while GPS on barely leaves me with enough battery for a 10 hour day.

    • Tim Brookes
      July 27, 2016 at 3:20 am

      Leaving Location Services active in the background shouldn't be "burning up battery" if you're not using an app that relies on it. Things are different between iOS and Android, but iOS is notoriously good for its permissions-based system which allows you to revoke access to things like GPS on an app-by-app basis. The latest versions of Android are introducing this too.

      I think this largely depends on what OS and version you have. Modern versions of iOS and Android don't simply let apps remain active when you're not using them, using battery unnecessarily. The point of the article was to point out how GPS is very useful, and that you're better off controlling which apps have access to it (if possible) rather than disabling it altogether.

  2. Rob Hindle
    September 23, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    My Google Android phone started to give me a Google map & directions back to my accommodation after a few days on holiday without me ever needing to tell it where I was staying, just derived presumably from my overnight location.

    Smart stuff like that is one reason to keep GPS running. There's a lot of paranoia about tracking but there are 2 sides to the debate and I can't help wondering what the paranoid are hiding. There's no doubt location history can be a big help - you are accused of robbing a bank in Rome but the location record from your the phone says you were in Paris at the time, so you may be off the hook (on the other hand if the phone places you in the bank in Rome you might have some explaining to do!)

    Basically, as is so common with new technologies, once the genie is out of the bottle it's not going back. Like it or not, we have to change how we live to reflect changed circumstances.

  3. Gabriel Jones
    September 23, 2015 at 10:52 am

    All the apps could use cell tower location. Except maybe the running app. Geo tagging photos can be dangerous if you intend on posting them online giving people fine location of your baby. Also many apps have the right to sell your location info too.

  4. Rob Nightingale
    September 23, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Fantastic artcle, Tim. I usually do turn off GPS on my phone for fear of draining the battery, but like you said, provided I don't give GPS permissions to all of my apps, I shouldn't have much of a problem.... I do travel a lot however. Should I be keeping my GPS on when I'm overseas?

  5. Richard Oliver
    September 23, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Are the benefits listed above for the various types of app taken from real-world experience or what you read on the apps' pages in the App Store?

  6. likefun butnot
    September 22, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    There's a very sensible reason to turn off GPS for anyone who lives or works inside a building of dense enough construction to cause issues with GPS signal reception.

  7. Bill Frazier (xmBill)
    September 22, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    As an Android user with a ZTE Zmax phone that has a huge battery, battery usage is not an issue to me and I typically do leave my GPS on. However, I do flip-flop in my paranoia factor and do sometimes decide to turn the GPS tracking on my phone off with the understanding that I can still be tracked using triangulation.

    I fully don't blame people for keeping it off and with Android it is very simple to turn it back on since the apps I am familiar with that require the use of GPS will typically prompt you to turn it on and actually take you to the settings to turn it back on, so one doesn't even have to remember where in the settings the GPS setting is.

    For those paranoid, remember that as long as you have a phone that doesn't allow you to remove the battery, then your phone is never truly off unless the battery is removed or you put a switch in that will totally disconnect your battery. Then again they are manufacturing chips with batteries built-in to the chip. Think on that for a while what can be done with a very efficient GPS and a low current drain microphone. Now it is time to be paranoid and get rid of your cell phone altogether. lol

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