The Reason Why Your Phone Knows Where You Are Even with GPS or Location Turned Off


Last Updated on 2023-04-07 , 12:17 pm

Imagine this. You’re sitting at your favorite Starbucks just minding your own business, when suddenly Google Maps sends you a pop-up notice on your phone that goes like this:

“Hi, would you like to check in at Starbucks ****** Lane/Road/Avenue?”

Then you freak out. How does my phone know where I am, and with great accuracy at that?

It happens once, it happens again, and again, and again.

You think to yourself, I’ve got to turn my GPS off. That’ll work!

And then you realize that your GPS has been off all the while. Well, don’t worry, you’re not alone: recently, this is happening to all of us.

The thing is, turning your GPS off isn’t enough to prevent your phone from detecting where you are. And least not in 2017, when GPS isn’t the only thing that could track you.

There are several methods by which your phones can place you in a specific location. Most people just aren’t comfortable with knowing that some ‘Big Brother’ is following them around the entire day, and this concern is no doubt legitimate. You never know whether your privacy or safety will be compromised, and whether the data about your movements will end up in the wrong hands.

So, what are the “things” that are tracking you? Here are some of the main methods used, and they have nothing to do with GPS positioning.

BSSID from WLAN Access Points
The BSSID or Basic Service Set ID is the basic unit of any Wireless WiFi connection and the ID is publicly broadcasted, despite you not using the public Wifi connected to the BSS system. Your phone provides Google with data on the available internet access point surrounding it, and Google uses their BSSID to estimate your general location.


Cell Tower Geolocation
For those using mobile data plans, your Smartphone’s operating system, whether Android or iOS is able to use three or more cellular towers to triangulate or estimate your location, depending on how close or far you are to certain cell towers. The closer you are to one tower, the stronger or faster your data signal is and vice versa. Using this data from three or more towers will reveal where the lines cross, and tadaa! That’s where you’re sitting/standing/hanging out.

Browser History
In some cases, Maps is able to find your current location via things like your web browser’s location history. Certain websites you visit will automatically try to establish locations based on your WiFi connection so your location can be estimated based on where you were when you last accessed these websites.

WiFi Connections
A Wifi by itself can be tagged to a location if someone before you has had their GPS switched on while using it. So whenever anyone uses that WiFi, whether public or password protected, maps and other apps will be able to pin you to that location easily.

The question now is, what can you do to protect you privacy as far as possible?

Here’s how you can prevent your phones from revealing where you are all the time:

On Android

  • Open your apps drawer and click on ‘Setting’. It’s the icon that looks like a cogwheel.
  • Once there, select the ‘General’ menu
  • You’ll see the ‘Location’ option. Click on it.
  • On the ‘Location’ page, scroll down until you see ‘Location Services’
  • There will be two options beneath it, called ‘Google Location History’ and ‘Google Location Sharing’
  • Once you choose either on, a slider with ‘on’ will appear at the top of the page. Click on the slider to turn both options off.
  • Additionally, at the bottom of the ‘Google Location History’ page you should press ‘Delete Location History’
  • If you have more than one Google account, you have to repeat the steps above for each of your accounts.

Some apps cannot work if you turn off your ‘Google Location Reporting’, such as Waze, Google Maps and various weather apps. What you can do is turn the reporting option on while you need to use these apps, then turn them off afterwards. Keep the ‘History’ option turned off at all times.

On iOS

  • Find the ‘Settings’ app and click on it.
  • Look for ‘Privacy’ and then choose’ Location Services’
  • You can disable the location services for all your apps by pushing the slider on the top, or choose which apps to leave on or turn off individually.
  • After that, choose ‘System Services’ and disable all the options there which include location specific iADs, Popular Near Me and so on.

Apple doesn’t allow you to erase your location history, so there’s no legal way to erase your iPhone’s location history unless you jailbreak it and install an app that constantly cleans your location history.

Remember, here’s the takeaway: the new norm is called “location”. GPS? That’s so yesterday.

Featured Image: mae_chaba /