How to Work With Location Services in iOS 7

The term Location Awareness is assigned to electronic devices, such as iPhones and iPads, that can passively or actively determine their location. Location Awareness is evident in several technologies present in our iDevices. For example, they are capable of establishing a virtual perimeter in the real-world geographic area in which they are located. This technology is called Geofencing, which I discussed in an article; “How to Adjust Geofencing in Reminders for iPhone and iPad” here on TMO. 

The underlying framework that manages all this magic, and more, is known as Location Services. It allows location-based apps and websites to use information from cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, and now Bluetooth and iBeacons to determine your approximate location. Location-aware apps include Maps, Camera, Safari, as well as other Apple and vast numbers of third-party apps.

The Privacy settings panel in iOS

The Location Services panel has a “master switch”, but by disabling everything, the device’s full utility is compromised

An example of Location Services in action is where an app will use your location data as well as location search queries you make, to help you find nearby theaters, cafés, or banks to name a few. Also, how do you think your device sets its time zone automatically no matter what your location? Yes, via Location Services. 

Before all you Privacy nerds out there get all flummoxed, you’ll be glad to learn that for all this to work, Location Services must be manually enabled on the device. Essentially, you are empowered to give your permission to iOS and to each app or website before it can use your location data. The “master switch” is located in in Settings > Privacy > Location Services.

The Location Services settings panel

The Location Services “master switch” plus the full list of all apps’ Location Services status. These can be individually controlled.

In iOS 7, if you disable Location Services and use Find My iPhone Lost Mode, Location Services will be re-enabled on the device as long as the device is in Lost Mode. Lost Mode settings can be found in the Find iPhone app (which is also on the iPad). Once Lost Mode is disabled, Location Services will return to its previous state. In case you are wondering, Lost Mode lets you lock and track a missing device. You can also provide contact information in case someone finds your little friend gone missing.

Next: How Accurate Are Location Services?

Part 2 - How Accurate Are Location Services?

 

As alluded to above, depending on your device model, the iOS version and available services, Location Services uses a combination of cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, iBeacons and GPS to determine your location. If you're not within a clear line-of-sight to GPS satellites, your device can determine your location using crowd-sourced Wi-Fi and cell tower locations or iBeacons.

A Maps page on an iPhone

The Maps app and many other apps that display map info will show your location if Location Services is enabled

Apps that can show your location on the screen, including Maps, indicate your current (approximate) location using a blue marker pin. If your location can’t be determined precisely, a blue circle also appears around the pin. The size of the circle shows how precisely your location can be determined – the smaller the circle, the greater the precision.

An information box showing the Location Services arrowhead icon that appears on the devices status bar

A tiny arrowhead in the status bar indicates that Location Services is enabled on the device. [Source: iPhone User Guide]

By the way, have you ever noticed a tiny arrowhead icon on your device’s status bar at the top of the screen? This is an indicator that Location Services is currently active.

An important fact to understand is that maps, directions, and location-based apps depend on third-party data services. Remember that data is subject to change and may not be available in all geographic areas, resulting in maps, directions, or location-based information that may be unavailable, inaccurate, or incomplete. Don’t be empty-headed by relying 100% on what your device tells you. Common sense dictates that you compare the information provided on the device to your surroundings, and defer to posted signs and prior experience to resolve any discrepancies.

Next: Turning Location Services On or Off

Part 3 - Turning Location Services On or Off

 

As mentioned, you can turn Location Services on or off via a master switch located in Settings > Privacy > Location Services. When you first set up a new device, the Setup Assistant process will prompt you for this. Whatever you choose to do, you can always enable or disable the service through the Location Services settings. 

For you Privacy dweebs, you can turn Location Services off if you’re afraid to use this feature. However, don’t come crying to me later when you find that your device is useless. In the meantime, for the rest of us who do take full advantage of the benefits of Location Services, we still want to know how to disable those services when the inevitable time comes to conserve battery life. That’s because, Location Services require the use of your device’s radios. That drains energy.

You can also fine-tune Location Services by individually controlling which apps and system services have access to Location Services data.

The Location Services screen

Different arrowhead arrows in app listings will indicate the status of Location Services for that app [See also the next illustration]

This is available by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services. When Location Services are off, apps cannot utilize your location in the foreground or background. Of course, by doing so, you stifle the utility and performance of numerous apps.

By the way, to disable Location Services for all websites, turn off Location Services for the Safari app.

A detail from the Location Services settings panel that explains the three different Location Services icons that may be visible in the list of apps.

The apps in the Location Services panel may include different arrowhead icons depending on the status of Location Services

Next: System Services

Part 4 - System Services

 

When Location Services are turned on, certain location-based System Services are enabled. These can also be fine-tuned by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services (at the very bottom of the Location Services page), where you may disable individual location-based system services on your device. 

If you turn Location Services off, you'll be prompted to turn it on again the next time an application tries to use this feature.

The System Services settings panel

The System Services settings panel. Individual system-wide services can be controlled for location-revealing activities

Here are examples of some of the enabled System Services that you can control individually:

  • Popular Near Me: Your iPhone will periodically send locations of where you have purchased or used Apps in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple in order to improve a crowd-sourced database that may be used to offer geographically-relevant Apps.
  • Frequent Locations: Your iPhone will keep track of places you’ve recently visited, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are meaningful to you. Apple claims that this data is kept solely on your device and won't be sent to them without your consent. This information is used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing.

A screen from the Frequent Locations settings panel

In System Services > Frequent Locations, here is an example from the location information that was tracked from my iPhone during a recent trip to Rhode Island

  • Location-Based iAds: Your iPhone will transmit your location to Apple in order to provide you with geographically relevant iAds.

Next: Location Warnings and Crowd-Sourced Location Services

Part 5 - Location Warnings and Crowd-Sourced Location Services

 

Resetting Location Warnings

Location warnings are the requests made by apps (such as Camera, Compass, and Maps as well as numerous location-based third-party apps). These requests are for permission to use Location Services with those apps. 

A location warning dialog generated by the Maps app

This is a location warning dialog generated by the Maps app

An app generally presents a location warning the first time it needs to access Location Services data; usually when first launched. Tapping OK will give that app permission to use Location Services as needed. Tapping Don't Allow will prevent an app from accessing Location Services data from then on.

Crowd-sourced Wi-Fi and cellular Location Services

If Location Services are enabled, your device will periodically send the “geo-tagged” locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple. This serves to supplement Apple's crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations - all in an effort to continuously improve mapping and location services. 

Additionally, let’s say you’re on a road trip in your car and that Location Services is on. A GPS-enabled iOS device will periodically send GPS locations and travel speed information in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple. This data will be used to augment Apple's crowd-sourced road traffic database. Supposedly, the crowd-sourced location data gathered by Apple does not personally identify you.

Incidentally, in order to use the assistance of GPS services, you must be equipped with either an iPad with cellular service or with any iPhone. A Wi-Fi – only iPad (and an iPod touch, come to think of it) will still be able to utilize Location Services, but less accurately.

In conclusion, it’s clear that one of the biggest advantages to toting around an iPhone or iPad is the utility and pleasure derived from using location-aware apps and functionality. You can safely use Location Services, but with a little knowledge and awareness, you can mitigate any privacy concerns, utilize the services just on those apps that are most useful to you, while doing what you can to maximize the battery life of your iDevice.