Q: I recently bought an iPhone 5, but I’m one of those people who just can’t handle the idea of my iPhone tracking my every move, so I keep the “location” features turned off except when I really need them. My understanding is that this should prevent any app on the iPhone—including the browser—from being able to track my whereabouts. It seems that some web sites in Safari are still able to do this, though, so I’m not sure that I’ve turned it off properly. For example, when I go to a “Store Locator” page for certain businesses, it always seems to default to searching in my area? How can this be if I have location services off? Is there something else I need to disable? I really hate the idea that web sites can figure out where I am based on the GPS in my phone.
A: Turning location services off is relatively straightforward—simply go into Settings, Privacy, Location Services on your iPhone. From here you can toggle off location services globally such that no apps can access it—including internal Apple features such as “Find My iPhone”—or you can disable it on a per-app basis.
Further, even if you have Location Services enabled for Safari, you should see a prompt whenever a web site is requesting location information from your iPhone. In fact, some sites such as Google Maps will even notify you when they cannot access your location, either because you’ve denied them permission (tapped “Don’t Allow”) or you have location services disabled—either globally or specifically for Safari.
If you are not approving any requests to use your location or you do in fact have location services disabled entirely, then your iPhone is not specifically sending your location information. What is likely happening with sites that appear to know your location is that they are tracking this information based not on your actual location, but on the IP address that you are connecting to the Internet from.
Every device that accesses the Internet requires a unique IP address, and while many of these are assigned dynamically by ISPs and cellular carriers, they can still usually be traced back to a general geographic area based on the Internet registry. In most cases this is often no more accurate than the city that you are in, although some IP address blocks in major metropolitan areas can be tracked down to a general suburb or large neighbourhood. On the other hand, it’s also equally possible for this information to be completely inaccurate, since it’s based on where the IP address block that you’re in is registered to, not based on where you actually are.
However, due to the limited availability of IP addresses, chances are that you are actually connecting to the Internet using a shared, common IP address for your home, school, office or cellular provider rather than a public IP address that is specifically assigned to your individual iPhone.
The bottom line is that there’s really nothing you can do about this sort of tracking, as public IP addresses are publicly available and in fact necessary in order for devices to communicate with each other on the Internet. However, the publicly registered information for an IP address is very rarely precise enough to even identify the street that your home or office is on, much less a more specific location, and will provide even less specific information when you are on a cellular network away from your home or office.