Ten Ways Your Smartphone Knows Where You Are (2023)

One of the most important capabilities that smartphones now have is knowing where they are. More than desktops, laptops, personal navigation devices or even tablets, which are harder to take with you, a smartphone can combine its location with many other pieces of data to make new services available.

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“There’s a gamification aspect, there’s a social aspect, and there’s a utilitarian aspect,” said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. Greengart believes cellphone location is in its second stage, moving beyond basic mapping and directions to social and other applications. The third stage may bring uses we haven’t even foreseen.

Like other digital technologies, these new capabilities come with worries as well as benefits. Consumers are particularly concerned about privacy when it comes to location because knowing where you are has implications for physical safety from stalking or arrest, said Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Yet most people have embraced location-based services without thinking about dangers such as service providers handing over location data in lawsuits or hackers stealing it from app vendors.

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“This transition has been so quick that people haven’t exactly thought through the implications on a large scale,” Schoen said. “Most people aren’t even very clear on which location technologies are active and which are passive.” Many app-provider practices are buried in long terms of service. Risk increases with the number of apps that you authorize to collect location data, according to Schoen, so consumers have at least one element of control.

There are at least 10 different systems in use or being developed that a phone could use to identify its location. In most cases, several are used in combination, with one stepping in where another becomes less effective.

(Video) How Your Smartphone Knows Where You Are

1. GPS

Global Positioning System was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and was first included in cellphones in the late 1990s. It’s still the best-known way to find your location outdoors.

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GPS uses a constellation of satellites that send location and timing data from space directly to your phone. If the phone can pick up signals from three satellites, it can show where you are on a flat map, and with four, it can also show your elevation.

Other governments have developed their own systems similar to GPS, but rather than conflicting with it, they can actually make outdoor location easier. Russia’s GLONASS is already live and China’s Compass is in trials. Europe’s Galileo and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System are also on the way. Phone chip makers are developing processors that can use multiple satellite constellations to get a location fix faster.

2. Assisted GPS

GPS works well once your phone finds three or four satellites, but that may take a long time, or not happen at all if you’re indoors or in an “urban canyon” of buildings that reflect satellite signals. Assisted GPS describes a collection of tools that help to solve that problem.

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One reason for the wait is that when it first finds the satellites, the phone needs to download information about where they will be for the next four hours. The phone needs that information to keep tracking the satellites. As soon as the information reaches the phone, full GPS service starts.

(Video) Things You Didn't Know Your Smartphone Could Do

Carriers can now send that data over a cellular or Wi-Fi network, which is a lot faster than a satellite link. This may cut GPS startup time from 45 seconds to 15 seconds or less, though it’s still unpredictable, said Guylain Roy-MacHabee, CEO of location technology company RX Networks.

3. Synthetic GPS

The form of assisted GPS described above still requires an available data network and the time to transmit the satellite information. Synthetic GPS uses computing power to forecast satellites’ locations days or weeks in advance. This function began in data centers but increasingly can be carried out on phones themselves, according to Roy-MacHabee of RX, which specializes in this type of technology. With such a cache of satellite data on board, a phone often can identify its location in two seconds or less, he said.

4. Cell ID

However, all the technologies that speed up GPS still require the phone to find three satellites. Carriers already know how to locate phones without GPS, and they knew it before phones got the feature. Carriers figure out which cell a customer is using, and how far they are from the neighboring cells, with a technology called Cell ID. By knowing which sector of which base station a given phone is using, and using a database of base-station identification numbers and locations, the carriers can associate the phone’s location with that of the cell tower. This system tends to be more precise in urban areas with many small cells than in rural areas, where cells may cover an area several kilometers in diameter.

5. Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi can do much the same thing as Cell ID, but with greater precision because Wi-Fi access points cover a smaller area.

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There are actually two ways Wi-Fi can be used to determine location. The most common, called RSSI (received signal strength indication), takes the signals your phone detects from nearby access points and refers to a database of Wi-Fi networks. The database says where each uniquely identified access point is located. Using signal strength to determine distance, RSSI determines where you are (down to tens of meters) in relation to those known access points.

(Video) 11 Useful Things You Didn't Know Your Smartphone Could Do

The other form of Wi-Fi location, wireless fingerprinting, uses profiles of given places that are based on the pattern of Wi-Fi signals found there. This technique is best for places that you or other cellphone users visit frequently. The fingerprint may be created and stored the first time you go there, or a service provider may send someone out to stand in certain spots in a building and record a fingerprint for each one. Fingerprinting can identify your location to within just a few meters, said Charlie Abraham, vice president of engineering at Broadcom’s GPS division, which makes chipsets that can use a variety of location mechanisms.

6. Inertial Sensors

If you go into a place where no wireless system works, inertial sensors can keep track of your location based on other inputs. Most smartphones now come with three inertial sensors: a compass (or magnetometer) to determine direction, an accelerometer to report how fast your phone is moving in that direction, and a gyroscope to sense turning motions. Together, these sensors can determine your location with no outside inputs, but only for a limited time. They’ll work for minutes, but not tens of minutes, Broadcom’s Abraham said.

The classic use case is driving into a tunnel: If the phone knows your location from the usual sources before you enter, it can then determine where you’ve gone from the speed and direction you’re moving. More commonly, these tools are used in conjunction with other location systems, sometimes compensating for them in areas where they are weak, Abraham said.

7. Barometer

Outdoor navigation on a sidewalk or street typically happens on one level, either going straight or making right or left turns. But indoors, it makes a difference what floor of the building you’re on. GPS could read this, except that it’s usually hard to get good GPS coverage indoors or even in urban areas, where the satellite signals bounce off tall buildings. One way to determine elevation is a barometer, which uses the principle that air gets thinner the farther up you go.

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Some smartphones already have chips that can detect barometric pressure, but this technique isn’t usually suited for use by itself, RX’s Roy-MacHabee said. To use it, the phone needs to pull down local weather data for a baseline figure on barometric pressure, and conditions inside a building such as heating or air-conditioning flows can affect the sensor’s accuracy, he said. A barometer works best with mobile devices that have been carefully calibrated for a specific building, so it might work in your own office but not in a public library, Roy-MacHabee said. Barometers are best used in combination with other tools, including GPS, Wi-Fi and short-range systems that register that you’ve gone past a particular spot.

(Video) How Your Smartphones Know Your Location

8. Ultrasonic

Sometimes just detecting whether someone has entered a certain area says something about what they’re doing. This can be done with short-range wireless systems, such as RFID (radio-frequency identification) with a badge. NFC (near-field communication) is starting to appear in phones and could be used for checkpoints, but manufacturers’ main intention for NFC is payments.

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However, shopper loyalty company Shopkick is already using a short-range system to verify that consumers have walked into a store. Instead of using a radio, Shopkick broadcasts ultrasonic tones just inside the doors of a shop. If the customer has the Shopkick app running when they walk through the door, the phone will pick up the tone through its microphone and the app will tell Shopkick that they’ve entered. The shopper can earn points, redeemable for gift cards and other rewards, just for walking into the store, and those show up immediately. Shopkick developed the ultrasonic system partly because the tones can’t penetrate walls or windows, which would let people collect points just for walking by, CTO Aaron Emigh said. They travel about 150 feet (46 meters) inside the store. Every location of every store has a unique set of tones, which are at too high a frequency for humans to hear. Dogs can hear them, but tests showed they don’t mind, Emigh said.

9. Bluetooth Beacons

Very precise location can be achieved in a specific area, such as inside a retail store, using beacons that send out signals via Bluetooth. The beacons, smaller than a cellphone, are placed every few meters and can communicate with any mobile device equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, the newest version of the standard.

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Using a technique similar to Wi-Fi fingerprinting, the venue owner can use signals from this dense network of transmitters to identify locations within the space, Broadcom’s Abraham said. Nokia, which is participating in a live in-store trial of Bluetooth beacons, says the system can determine location to within 10 centimeters. With location sensing that specific, a store could tell when you were close to a specific product on a shelf and offer a promotion, according to Nokia.

10. Terrestrial Transmitters

Australian startup Locata is trying to overcome GPS’ limitations by bringing it down to Earth. The company makes location transmitters that use the same principle as GPS but are mounted on buildings and cell towers. Because they are stationary and provide a much stronger signal to receivers than satellites do from space, Locata’s radios can pinpoint a user’s location almost instantly to as close as 2 inches, according to Locata CEO Nunzio Gambale.

(Video) What your smartphone knows about you | NordVPN

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Locata networks are also more reliable than GPS, he said. The company’s receivers currently cost about $2500 and are drawing interest from transportation, defense and public safety customers, but within a few years the technology could be an inexpensive add-on to phones, according to Gambale. Then, service providers will be its biggest customers, he said. Another company in this field, NextNav, is building a network using licensed spectrum that it says can cover 93 percent of the U.S. population. NextNav’s transmitters will be deployed in a ring around each city and take advantage of the long range of its 900MHz spectrum, said Chris Gates, vice president of strategy and development.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen’s e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

FAQs

How does your smartphone know where you are? ›

Your internet connection, mobile data connection, and GPS are the three principal ways that your device can know and share your location. While some of these can be turned off manually, that your device can give away its location has become a simple fact of life.

How does my phone know everything I do? ›

As soon as you sign into your Android with your Google login, your phone is linked to all of your other Google accounts. Once you've logged in, your phone has access to everything Google does, including the length and type of your phone calls, your device, where you are, and more.

What is smartphone very short answer? ›

A smartphone is a cellular telephone with an integrated computer and other features not originally associated with telephones such as an operating system, web browsing, and the ability to run software applications.

What are 5 tasks you use your smartphone for? ›

So, let's look at how you can optimize your smartphone and get even more out of your daily life.
...
Work While Driving
  • Sending or receiving text messages.
  • Sending or receiving emails.
  • Write blog posts.
  • Check the weather or the news.
  • Learn about anything.
25 Apr 2016

Can your phone tell you where you've been? ›

If you're an Android user, you can use the Timeline page to see a map of everywhere you've been with your phone.

Is your smartphone listening to everything you say? ›

They listen to your voice all the time and, after you trigger a special command, recognize you so you can make calls, send texts, ask questions, and control your device. We can definitely say that your phone is listening to you via your device's onboard microphone.

How does iPhone know where I am? ›

Location Services uses GPS and Bluetooth (where those are available) along with crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations to determine your device's approximate location. Your Apple Watch may use the location of your paired iPhone if it is nearby.

What can staring at your phone do? ›

Eye strain from phone use is much the same as computer eye strain symptoms. Mobile phone eye strain may cause the following symptoms: Dry eyes. Irritation.

What are the 10 uses of smartphone? ›

Top 10 daily smartphone uses
  • Texting (88% use this)
  • Email (70% use this)
  • Facebook (62% use this)
  • Camera (61% use this)
  • Reading news (58% use this)
  • Online shopping (56% use this)
  • Checking the weather (54% use this)
  • WhatsApp (51% use this)
25 Jul 2017

What are the 4 main uses of smartphones? ›

Uses include:
  • Sending and receiving emails, text, photographs and multimedia messages.
  • Registering contacts.
  • Calculator, currency conversions, alarm, etc. functions.
  • Browsing the Internet using a mobile browser.
  • Playing games.
  • Video chat.
  • Mobile payment for goods or services.
  • Barcode scanning.

What are 3 advantages of a smartphone? ›

It has paved the way for SMS, text messages, calls, video chat, and applications that allow individuals to connect with others around the world instantly. They fit easily into your pocket or bag. Moreover, they don't weigh much. There are inexpensive models available for those with a limited budget.

How can I use my smartphone wisely? ›

10 Rules to Help Kids Use Smartphones Wisely
  1. Rule #1: Have Rules.
  2. Rule # 2: Set Limits on Usage.
  3. Rule #3: Pay Attention to Netiquette.
  4. Rule #4: Stress Quality over Quantity.
  5. Rule #5: Don't Ignore the Friend in Front of You.
  6. Rule #6: Maintain Privacy.
  7. Rule #7: Privacy Does Not Include Family Members.
15 Apr 2015

What is the most important use of your cell phone? ›

1. Communication. Mobile phones provide the means to communicate with friends, family, coworkers, and indeed most of the world's population instantly. Unlike previous communication devices, they can be on hand for the caller at all times and used in any place where there is a signal.

What is the main role for mobile phones? ›

Mobile phones are used for a variety of purposes, such as keeping in touch with family members, for conducting business, and in order to have access to a telephone in the event of an emergency. Some people carry more than one mobile phone for different purposes, such as for business and personal use.

Can Google tell me where I've been? ›

Google Maps Timeline shows an estimate of places that you may have been and routes that you may have taken based on your Location History. You can edit your Timeline anytime and delete your Location History in Timeline. Your Timeline is private, so only you can find it.

How does Google know where I've been? ›

Most mobile phones are equipped with GPS, which uses signals from satellites to determine a device's location – however, with Google Location Services, additional information from nearby Wi-Fi, mobile networks, and device sensors can be collected to determine your device's location.

Can someone track your location from a text? ›

With their GPS radios and constant data connection, smartphones are technically capable of tracking our location and monitoring our activity, which is enough to raise privacy concerns among users. Few people know, however, that phones can be tracked using little more than a text message.

Why do apps track your location? ›

Social media. Like most free apps, social media apps collect personal and location data so they can learn who you are. And everything they know about you is used for advertising purposes.

How accurate is smartphone location? ›

For example, GPS-enabled smartphones are typically accurate to within a 4.9 m (16 ft.) radius under open sky (view source at ION.org). However, their accuracy worsens near buildings, bridges, and trees. High-end users boost GPS accuracy with dual-frequency receivers and/or augmentation systems.

How do you get the location of where you are? ›

Find your current location on the map
  1. On your computer, open Google Maps.
  2. At the bottom right, click My location. . The blue dot shows your location.

Can my phone hear what I'm talking about? ›

Yes, your phone is listening to you — to an extent and namely through virtual assistant apps, that is. First came Siri in 2011, then came Google Assistant, and then Alexa and Cortana all followed.

Can someone watch you through your phone? ›

On top of that, popular app developers aren't immune to accusations of watching you through your phone's camera. Generally, however, a stalker would need to install spyware on your device in order to compromise it. Hackers can gain access to your phone physically, through apps, media files, and even emojis.

Which apps are listening to me? ›

In “Settings,” tap “Privacy.” In “Privacy,” tap “Microphone.” On the next screen, you'll see a list of installed apps that have previously requested access to your microphone. Each app has a switch beside it.

Why does my phone location say I'm somewhere else? ›

Android typically uses the Network Location permission to locate your phone's present location. If you are connected via your home's Wi-Fi then the location permission is not always able to pinpoint your location other than the general area such as town. It could be a nearby town as well.

Why does my iPhone keep telling me how far I am from home? ›

According to Apple, that location data is not actually sent to their servers without your permission, and they describe Frequent Locations as follows: Your iPhone will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you.

What happens if I use my phone in the dark? ›

New research is detailing how blue light, which emits from smartphone and laptop screens, can damage your retinal cells, and possibly lead to macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes vision loss.

What happens when you hold your phone too much? ›

Digital eye strain.

Eyes begin to burn and itch. Blurred vision. Eye fatigue. Digital Eye Strain can cause headaches.

What happens when u use too much phone? ›

Excessive smartphone use can disrupt your sleep, which can have a serious impact on your overall mental health. It can impact your memory, affect your ability to think clearly, and reduce your cognitive and learning skills.

What are good things about smartphones? ›

The Positive Effects of Smartphones
  • Improves communication and connection. In many ways, smartphones are a great tool to stay in touch with people, especially if you live far away. ...
  • Helps with organization. ...
  • Help in Emergencies. ...
  • Provides a wealth of access to information. ...
  • Resources for health and wellbeing.
28 Jun 2021

Why smartphone is called smart? ›

It defines smartphones as "wireless phones with advanced data features and often keyboards." It adds, "What makes the phone 'smart' is its ability to manage and transmit data in addition to voice calls."

What is the difference between a mobile phone and a smartphone? ›

A mobile phone and a smartphone are both mobile devices which you can use to call and text. The options for a mobile phone mainly end there, apart from the models that have a camera. A smartphone has all sorts of extra functions, like internet access, the option to download apps, and a better camera.

What are the benefits of smartphones for students? ›

So let's dig into the few advantages of smartphones for students.
  • Improves Knowledge. ...
  • Assists well during Emergencies. ...
  • Learning out of the Class. ...
  • Good Time Management. ...
  • Helpful in Academic Studies. ...
  • Entertainment. ...
  • Helpful in Locating.
24 Jun 2022

What are 2 disadvantages of a smartphone? ›

The electromagnetic radiation will be high because of the heavy internet usage and might lead to health problems such as a brain tumor and Skin Cancer. The HEV light emitted from the screen of a smartphone leads to severe eye-strain during long-time use and would slowly damage the retina.

How do smartphones make life easier? ›

Having a smartphone makes it so much easier to try new things. You can easily find groups for any subject you like. These groups can be online, or they can be offline, but the internet can really bring people together. You could find interests that you never even knew were possible before.

Why should we learn to use mobile phones wisely and safely? ›

Children's skulls are thinner than adults' and their brains are still developing. Hence, radiation from cell phones penetrates more deeply into their brains and is likely to cause more damage.

Why you should have 2 phones? ›

The obvious benefit of carrying two phones is that you get a dedicated phone for work. This makes it easy to identify work-related calls and prioritise them. You can also your second phone to organise your professional messages. This makes it easy to retrieve a text from a customer or vendor.

Why phone is important in our life essay? ›

Apart from this mobile also keeps us updated about the whole world. Today mobiles phone has made our life so easy for daily life activities. Today, one can assess the live traffic situation on mobile phone and take appropriate decisions to reach on time. Along with it the weather updates, booking a cab and many more.

What is the main part of a smartphone? ›

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The CPU is the Main Control Section of a mobile phone, Android Smartphone and Apple iPhone. It controls all the function and does all the processing work.

How does my Android phone know my location? ›

When you have Google Location Accuracy turned on, your phone uses these sources to get the most accurate location:
  • GPS.
  • Wi-Fi.
  • Mobile networks.
  • Sensors (such as accelerometer)

How does Iphone know where you are? ›

Location Services uses GPS and Bluetooth (where they're available), along with crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular towers to determine the approximate location of your device. Apps won't use your location until they ask for your permission and you allow permission.

Why does your phone track your location? ›

Location data from smartphones is used for several purposes, most frequently for targeted advertising. For example, companies may show ads for sneakers to people who often go to a gym.

How do I know if someone is tracking my location? ›

How to Know If Someone Is Tracking Your Phone
  • Unknown Apps. Look out for applications that you didn't install. ...
  • Excessive Background Data Usage. Monitor the background data usage of your device. ...
  • Browser History Mismatch. Check your browser history for entries that you do not recognize. ...
  • Battery Drain. ...
  • Abnormal Reboot.
22 Apr 2022

Can you still be tracked if your location services are off? ›

Public Wi-Fi Networks

Free Wi-Fi networks are all the rage these days. They're everywhere, and it can be tempting to connect to one when you have a slow connection. But here's the thing: public Wi-Fi networks are another way your device's location can be tracked, even with location services turned off.

How do I block my phone from being tracked? ›

11 Ways to Prevent People from Tracking Your Phone
  1. Disable location services.
  2. Scan for and remove spyware.
  3. Use a private browser.
  4. Turn on airplane mode.
  5. Remove unfamiliar apps.
  6. Protect your Google account.
  7. Use a VPN.
  8. Turn off your phone.
26 May 2022

What device can determine your accurate location? ›

A global positioning system (GPS) is a network of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth. Some GPS receivers are so accurate they can establish their location within 1 centimeter.

Which location tracker is most accurate? ›

Top 7 Best GPS Tracker
  • #1 LandAirSea 54 GPS Tracker.
  • #2 Tracki 2020 GPS Tracker.
  • #3 PRIMETRACKING Personal GPS Tracker.
  • #4 Vyncs GPS Tracker.
  • #5 Jiobit Real-Time Location Tracker.
  • #6 GeoZilla GPS Location Tracker.
  • #7 Samsung SmartThings Tracker Live.
7 Oct 2022

What is the most accurate location app? ›

Google Maps is among the most popular phone tracker apps for Android and iPhone devices. The app's share location functionality allows the most accurate & reliable tracking results.

How does Apple know where im? ›

Significant locations takes location samples every so often to find out where you spend most of your time. It plots down the places you visit on a map, and the times you visit them, and uses the information it gathers to determine where you're most likely to go based on your current location.

Does GPS know where you are? ›

GPS is a system of 30+ navigation satellites circling Earth. We know where they are because they constantly send out signals. A GPS receiver in your phone listens for these signals. Once the receiver calculates its distance from four or more GPS satellites, it can figure out where you are.

Why My location is automatically on? ›

They just have to follow these steps: Go to Settings and then tap on Google. Tap on Security and then Find My Device. Toggle off the “Allow remote lock and erase” option.

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