October 16, 2013 3:29 pm

Privacy Commissioner recommends users disable ‘frequent locations’ setting on iOS 7

ABOVE: Privacy Commissioner urges iPhone users to turn off location tracking. Jackson Proskow reports. 

Update (Oct. 17): Global Toronto reporter Jackson Proskow sat down with Ann Cavoukian, Ontario Privacy Commissioner, to ask her about her take on iOS 7’s frequent locations setting.

Cavoukian said she was concerned to hear how some users were unaware of the setting, but noted that users should be taking better steps to learn.

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“What concerns me is that users, generally speaking, aren’t being active in terms of the use of these devices,” said Cavoukian.

She added that she does not encourage people to turn off location-based services altogether, but suggests that users control what apps use location services – turning it off for apps they do not want their information collected on.

“If you want to limit the amount of information out there you have to play a role and limit the amount of information relating to your tracking and your location that is enabled by these features,” Cavoukian added.

The office of the federal privacy commissioner declined to comment on whether iOS 7 is in compliance with Canadian privacy laws because it has not yet reviewed the operating system. A spokesperson went on to say “that the law obliges organizations to inform users of how their personal information is collected, used and safeguarded in a clear and understandable way.”

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TORONTO – Thanks to smartphones the average user has become accustomed to “checking in” to locations they have visited, be it through an app like Foursquare or adding a location to your Facebook status update.

But what the average user may not know is that their device may very well be tracking every move they make and the time spent there – turning their trusty device into somewhat of a stalker.

A location service setting included in Apple’s latest mobile operating system update, iOS 7, has some users and privacy experts concerned.

The “Frequent Locations” setting allows your device to “learn places you frequently visit in order to provide useful location-related information,” according to the settings description in the “Settings” menu.

But some feel the setting is much creepier than advertised.

The longer your iPhone gathers location information the more it seems to know about you – eventually deciphering your home address from your work address based on the hours your phone records being there.

Your favourite burger restaurant down the street – it knows that too (and it knows how quickly you scarfed down your lunch, down to the last second).

An example of how the frequent locations setting tracks time and dates spent at a location.

But some users have remained in the dark about the location-based data service, mainly because the setting is turned on by default in iOS 7.

Watch: (October 16) iPhone users react to learning about the “Frequent Locations” setting. Jackson Proskow reports. 

Avner Levin, director at the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute at Ryerson University, said in an interview with Global Toronto’s Jackson Proskow that the function was “creepy,” noting that the idea of back-end surveillance that is forced onto the user is quite alarming.

“It’s not the first time that we have seen a big company take steps in the background to collect information,” said Levin.

Global News contacted Apple with multiple questions about “Frequent Locations.”

Questions included, what type of information is tracked and how is the information used, is the information stored by Apple, what privacy guarantees do customers have with respect to how the information is protected, and why the function is enabled by default?

A spokesperson responded with a link to Apple’s support page for iOS 7, highlighting the site’s information about “Frequent Locations” which reads:

“Your iPhone will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you. This data is kept solely on your device and won’t be sent to Apple without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing.”

The support website does note that location information collected by Apple will be treated in accordance with Apple’s privacy policy.

Apple’s privacy policy notes that information including area codes, unique device identifiers, locations, and the time zone an Apple product is used in may be used to “better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.”

Apple isn’t the only major tech company that is using this kind of technology.

Google has a service called Google Now that behaves similarly to Apple’s frequent locations setting. The “personal assistant” app allows users to receive reminders about calendar events and new stories, but it also uses the device’s location services to tailor information.

For example, if you are travelling, Google Now will suggest nearby attractions, restaurants or photo spots. It also updates users with traffic information on the go.

Jason Offet, Toronto-based mobile marketing consultant, notes that these kinds of technologies are double-edged swords – by offering a bevy of new services to consumers while igniting fears about “big brother” and privacy concerns.

But, despite recognizing privacy concerns, Offet suggests that individual users may not need to worry so much about tech companies storing their information.

“What’s hard for most people to grasp is that individualized data really isn’t worth very much – it’s worth a lot to us personally – but to the company the data becomes valuable in aggregate. Not tens of users, not hundreds of users, but thousands and millions of users is when they start to get monetary value from it,” said Offet.

However, having a bunch of detailed map-oriented personal information stored on your smartphone isn’t something to ignore.

If your device was stolen and left without a passcode lock that information – some of which may identify an address as your home – would be accessible to the person with the device.

How to turn off “Frequent Locations”

Apple has also come under fire as some have noted that the frequent locations setting is difficult to find in the settings menu.

“At best, this settings system makes it extremely cumbersome for users who want to be prudent with their data. At worst, the whole thing makes me feel like I’m being purposefully confused,” wrote Digital Trends’s Andrew Couts in his review of iOS 7.

If you are an iOS 7 user concerned about the frequent locations setting, you can follow the instructions below to turn off  the setting.

1. Launch the Settings app from the Home screen of your iPhone or iPad.
2. Tap “Privacy.”
3. Tap “Location Services.”
4. Tap “System Services.”
5. Near the bottom of the next page, tap “Frequent Locations” and slide the toggle to the off position.

ios7-frequent-locations-howto

- With files from Jackson Proskow

© Shaw Media, 2013

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