You’ve probably seen a lot of messages about apps using your location in the background on your iPhone over the past few months. It’s not just you—it’s a change designed to expose just how much location data you’re sharing with apps.
This change is working to boost privacy: Since iOS 13’s launch, marketers are collecting 68% less background location data. That’s what Location Sciences, a location-based advertising company, told Fast Company near the end of January 2020.
Background Location Access in iOS 13
If you had these apps installed before iOS 13 and had given them access to monitor your location in the background, those apps were accessing your location even before the update. That hasn’t changed—the only change is that your iPhone is warning you about it.
For example, a weather app might use your location to show you nearby forecasts. A map app might use your background location to determine where you parked. And yes, many apps captured this location data and sent it to marketers for advertising purposes.
Starting with iOS 13, released in September 2019, this location-sharing is less silent. Older version of iOS let you grant an app the ability to “Always” view your location and forget about it. iOS 13 won’t let you forget. It’ll regularly show you popups with the message “[App] has used your location [number of] times in the background over the past [number of] days. Do you want to continue to allow background location use?”
To hammer the point home, iOS shows a map of the locations the app received from your phone or tablet. Apple is trying to show just how much access you’re giving this app.
When you see this prompt, you can tap “Change to Only While Using,” and the app will only get access to your location when you open and use it. Or, you can tap “Always Allow,” consenting to continued background location access.
How Do You Disable the Location Warning?
If you trust an app like your favorite weather or map application, you might want to disable the background location use prompts. Unfortunately, there’s no “don’t ask me again” option. iOS 13 will keep asking you about the apps using your location in the background unless you tap “Change to Only While Using.” iOS won’t warn you about apps that can only access your location while you’re using them.
The good news is that we’ve noticed these prompts becoming less frequent over time. In other words, if you keep telling your iPhone or iPad that you don’t mind an app’s location access, you won’t be asked about it as often.
Enabling Background Location Access Got Harder, Too
Apple made another change in iOS 13 that made background location access more complicated. Apps can no longer ask you for access to your background location with a popup when you open them. You can select “Allow While Using App,” “Allow Once,” or “Don’t Allow” in the popup, but that’s it.
To give an app access to your background location, you have to head to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > [App Name] and select “Always.” Apps have to ask you to do this rather than popping up a prompt requesting access.
Apple is trying to prevent people from quickly agreeing to share their location without realizing the seriousness of the data they’re offering. You have to go out of your way to allow background location access in a special way, just like when you’re giving “full access” to a third-party keyboard or activating a third-party password manager.
Should You Allow Background Location Access?
Whether you should “Always Allow” Access is a choice you have to make yourself depending on how much you trust the app and what you use it for.
Apps can display a short message in this prompt, explaining why they’re using your location access. For example, your weather app might say the location is used to provide weather that applies to your current location at all times. Different types of apps have various reasons for requesting your location.
If you do disable location access while you aren’t using an app, you’ll lose access to some of the app’s features that depend on running in the background. For example, Tile lets you track your lost objects, even when they’re out of range of your phone. It does that by using the Tile app on other Tile users’ phones to locate nearby Tile trackers and share their physical location with the Tile servers. Without background location access, Tile can’t do this.
Some Developers Call These Changes Anti-Competitive
These changes are one reason why Tile and other developers argue these changes are “anti-competitive,” as they hinder apps that depend on always-enabled background location tracking. It’s more complicated for users to enable background location access for an app like Tile, and iOS 13 will keep popping up warning messages asking if users really want to share their locations if they do enable it.
That might be rough for developers—and it’d be nice if there were a way to tell iOS “don’t ask me again”—but iOS 13’s changes have helped many people take more control of their location-sharing.
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