iOS 7: How to Decide Which Apps Get to Know Your Location

In iOS 6 and iOS 7, you can specify which apps are allowed to access your geographic location. However, how does one decide which apps receive that privilege? Here's how to set the restriction as well as some example guidance on how to make a yes/no decision.

The setting of interest is in Settings > Privacy > Location Services. It's the same for the iPad family and iPhone.

Some of my iPad apps and location grants.

The first time an app launches, if it needs to, it will ask for permission to obtain your location. At that point, your decision will set the on/off setting shown above. Later, if something has happened, say, the app obtained permission and you want to revoke it, you can go to this Settings page and reset the permission to off.

Apple provides these on/off settings so that the customer has control and can make a personal decision. That suggests that there are criteria for deciding.

Methods for Decision Making

So far, we've only discussed the mechanics of how to grant or revoke an app's ability to access your location. But just how do you make that decision?

One way to handle this is to develop a personal set of rules and standards. For me, I use a combination of trust, need to know, duplication of data and hidden usage.

1. Trust. If you have done business with the developer with other apps, on iOS or even OS X, or have corresponded with the developer and sized up his/her character, then it's a fairly easy decision. In many cases, I've reviewed the app and gotten to know the developer and learned about their professionalism and motivation to build the app. In a customer's case, reading the reviews at the App Store, while often non-technical and non-definitive, can present some insights into previous customer dealings with the developer, customer service issues, etc.

Whenever an app I review is free, I always ask about the business model. There are several legitimate enablers for a free app.

  1. The developer is new to iOS and wants to develop a good reputation with a first app showcasing his/her skills.
  2. The app is a lite version, an introduction to a more full-featured app that costs money.
  3. The app is free, but the developer builds a revenue stream with in-app purchases.
  4. The app is a gateway to a backend service. The service provider, not the customer, pays the developer for the business the app brings to them.

So not every free app asking for your location is evil. However, one should be particularly aware of the business model, reputation, and history for any free game that doesn't have in-app purchase but wants to collect information about you. Often, a simple Google search will turn up informative scuttlebutt on a questionable game.

2. Need to Know. Often a game or some utility will ask for you location. The question is: how does the operation or utility of the app require location data? If you can't answer that question, it's best to deny access to the location. You may find out later that the app isn't operating correctly or fully because it doesn't know your location. And then you realize that access needs to be granted. For example, the excellent app, NavClock needs to know your location to accurately compute the time of local sunrise and sunset. Sky Safari needs it to properly present the sky from your vantage point.

Many other apps that don't seem to need your location for computation or services want to collect your location for demographic analysis. For example, a network app like CBS app may want to know what zip code you are in because that says something about your socio-economic status. Or it may be used for directed advertising: people in Denver may want to know about snow tires.  Not so much in Miami.  This is the so-called backend business model; that information helps the developer, and is, in a sense, your payment for the free app, but isn't strictly necessary for its operation.

3. Duplication. Yesterday, I was exploring the Yahoo! app, and it asked me for my location. It was very polite and explained that without location data, it couldn't present me with the local weather forecast. However, I have several very nice weather apps that already are allowed to know my location via trust -- for example, The Weather Channel. I didn't see any reason why the Yahoo! app should also know my location because I had no plans to use that app for weather information. Access denied.

4. Embedded/Hidden Data. The iOS Camera app uses location data to populate the EXIF data portion of the image file.  That can be great for apps like iPhoto that want to help you remember where you took a vacation photo by putting pushpins on a map.  On the other hand, that EXIF data can be inspected by anyone who views your daughter's uploaded photo to, say, Twitter or Flickr. For the sake of family privacy, you may not want that. The lesson here is to understand how location data is used not only for computation or services like weather, but how that data is used and transmitted for other, unexpected purposes.

Having a specific philosophy, like the examples presented above, will help you decide which apps get to know your location. There may be other criteria I haven't explored, and you may well have developed your own unique philosophy. If so, you're invited to share them in the comments below.


Local map art by Shutterstock.