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Security & privacy

The NSA warns against a smartphone setting you probably have enabled

Location services are commonplace on most smartphones today. This location data, which can be tracked and shared with app servers, allows users to do things like navigate through traffic or monitor their exercise. But if precautions aren’t taken, it can reveal sensitive information about where you live, work and travel.

This is why people are becoming pickier about who they choose to share their data with. Some entities like Google, Facebook and Apple even use location services to serve you ads or improve their own systems. Tap or click here to see how to stop your iPhone from tracking your location.

But it’s not just ordinary users who are waking up to the intrusiveness of location data. The NSA is advising government employees to turn off their location services for cybersecurity purposes — arguing that this data can be used against them by adversaries for hacks and espionage. Here’s what they’re suggesting, and why you might want to give it a try.

NSA wants government employees to stop sharing location data

On August 4, the NSA published an advisory notice to government employees warning them about the risks of location data exposure. According to the agency, this data “can reveal details about the number of users in a location, user and supply movements, daily routines… and can expose otherwise unknown associations between users and locations.”

This warning comes at a significant moment in U.S. cybersecurity history, as numerous government agencies have re-evaluated their relationship with consumer technology. Tap or click here to see why the U.S. government is considering banning the Chinese social app TikTok.

The NSA points out that these features aren’t necessarily harmful by design, and that the instructions they list may not apply to everyone reading. What they do outline, though, is how easy it is for would-be adversaries to learn more about American targets through data access than they would be able to otherwise.

What’ surprising in the advisory, however, is just how pervasive location tracking tech is in each smartphone — even if you turn the location services feature off. Just having Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled can beam location data from your phone, as smartphone manufacturers use this information to improve their connection speeds and address service issues.

For VIPs and government employees, leaving location data active can reveal information like home addresses, frequently visited locations and places of work. This is a treasure trove of data for spies and other hostile agents, and leaving the information floating in the air like default settings allow can put national security at risk.

I want to turn off my location data. What should I do?

Ordinary users can still benefit from keeping sensitive data under wraps. As the NSA says, their guidelines probably don’t apply to you, but there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a little peace of mind.

Here’s what the NSA says government employees should do about location services on their device:

  • Disable location services settings.
  • Disable radios like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth by activating Airplane mode.
  • Give apps as few permissions as possible.
  • Disable ad permissions if possible.
  • Turn off settings device-tracking settings like Find My Device.
  • Avoid using the web browser.
  • Use an anonymous VPN service to mask your location.
  • Minimize the amount of data you store in the cloud.

As you can see, a good amount of this seems like overkill. Most of us probably use the web browser too often to completely give it up (and lets not forget, most government employees have separate phones they use for work and missions).

But to keep your data private, you can disable the basic location settings enterprising hackers can access. This is called “Frequent locations” or “Location history,” and these settings reveal all of the places you travel to most frequently, as well as your current location on most days.

For Apple devices:

  • Tap Settings and choose Privacy.
  • Tap Location Services and scroll down to the menu labeled System Services.
  • Tap Significant Locations to see where you’ve been and turn it off. You can also delete your history by clicking Clear History.

To adjust these settings on Android devices:

  • Open Settings and scroll down to Location.
  • At the top, disable Use location.
  • To delete your device’s records, tap on Delete Location History at the bottom of the screen under the label Location History.

In addition to these steps, you can also activate Airplane mode like the NSA suggests to temporarily disable your antennas.

On the iPhone:

  • Open Settings
  • At the top of the menu, slide the toggle next to Airplane Mode to the On position.

On Android:

  • Open Settings
  • Choose More from the Wireless & Networks section.
  • Toggle the Airplane Mode option on. You’ll see an airplane shaped icon that tells you when it’s active.

Even though activating these settings will prevent you from making calls or using the internet, they can be easily reversed just by following the same steps and turning the switch back to off. If only protecting ourselves from hackers were so easy.

Tap or click here to see the ways you can tell if your smartphone or computer was hacked.

And lastly, you’ll want to remove any device-tracking or theft prevention systems on your smartphone. These features, when enabled, are constantly streaming your location data. Removing the activation lock means you won’t be able to track your phone if you lose it, so consider the trade-off before taking this step.

Tap or click here and scroll down to see how to turn off Find my iPhone and Find my Device on your smartphone.

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