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Location Services: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Since the inception of the smartphone, many people have come to rely on phone location services for many of the features and applications to work properly. While location services are a wildly popular, and extremely useful tool, not much thought is put into how location services work, what information is being tracked and what information is available for others to see. Knowing just a tad more about your phone’s location services and mapping might just raise enough eyebrows to encourage people to use this with a bit more caution and responsibility.
How Does Location Services Work?

A smartphone has the ability to track a user’s whereabouts using two different methods. The first and most accurate method is by using the Global Positioning System (GPS) built into the phone. The GPS hardware in the phone is capable of communicating with the 30 GPS satellites that orbit the globe. Using three satellites at one time, the GPS is able to pinpoint the user’s exact location. Additionally, users have the ability to capture turn-by-turn directions, map routes and find other points of interest nearby.

Prior to GPS hardware being a standard addition to cell phones, location services were provided by the cell tower that the phone was connecting to. By gauging the direction of the signal and the distance from the tower, the user’s location could be loosely estimated. Adding data from a second tower increased accuracy and a third tower allowed the location to be triangulated better. While not nearly as accurate as GPS, tower triangulation did give a good estimate of where a person’s phone was positioned on a map.

The Good

For anyone who has needed directions or even advice on where the closest gas station, restaurant or coffee shop was, their phone’s location services were seen as a savior. Other apps, such as social networking and fitness programs, also rely on the phone’s location services to check in at various places, share whereabouts and track workouts like runs or bike rides. Other apps might tap into this feature as well to add extra services like providing deals and money saving opportunities to nearby users.

The Bad

As fun as it is to let people know your whereabouts, it isn’t always the safest thing to do. This is especially the case if you are not even aware that your phone may be broadcasting this information. There have been countless cases of people who have been stalked, assaulted or robbed because criminals were able to follow their every move based on the location data provided through their phone. It is easier to know when a victim will be vulnerable, or their house will be empty, if a criminal can see when they are away.

The Ugly

While it is easy to see the benefit of having GPS and other location enabled services on your phone, there are some controversial issues surrounding their use. For one, many watchdog groups are concerned with police and government agencies tapping into this data without proper warrants or permission. Not only that, but people have also been wrongly convicted based on the belief that using cell towers to place someone at a crime scene is exact.

Location services hold a great deal of promise for making life easier, but they are also a necessity. Without GPS on your phone, emergency services would not be able to pinpoint your location when calling 911 from a cell phone. In addition to using the your phone’s mapping system, the location services tool makes it possible to retrieve a lost or stolen phone. Like any technology, the key is to use these features responsibly. Don’t over share and be sure to set your device to only track and broadcast the information you feel comfortable with.