461: GPS

Do you leave the GPS on your phone on?


Full episode script

In September of 2006, NPR’s Morning Edition ran an extensive story about a new technology and all of the potentially worrisome impacts that it might have. The article discussed the benefits and drawbacks of a technology built in to 100 million cell phones — GPS. It was a technology that was first built in to cell phones in 1999, and now is in just about any cell phone that you can buy.

Since then, technology has come quite a ways. Even back in 2013, Greg Kumparak wrote in TechCrunch:

It’s not new. In fact, it’s been around for years. And yet, I had a helluva time finding many people who knew about it, even when I asked amongst my geekier circles. So consider this a public service announcement of awesomeness. A PSAoA, if you will.

I use “awesome”, here, instead of “terrifying and creepy”, because this is all opt-in. It’s a bit spooky in its scale, of course; it’s mindblowing to think about just how much data they’re gathering. But any data that’s there is there because you gave them the thumbs up at some point, even if it was while mindlessly clicking through the setup of a new device.

And that mindless click through is where it gets really interesting. Many – if not most – people with a smartphone never turn off the location services. One Pew Research report estimates 90 percent never turn off location services, even if they don’t necessarily want them on. In most systems, it is quite possible to turn off the GPS — though some investigations have shown that some systems will occasionally upload data and information about a phone’s location even when the phone’s GPS is off, no apps have been installed, and the SIM card is removed. It’s a modern-day implementation of the old privacy vs security debate.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.