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NSA: Your phone can give up your location, even when cellular is turned off

A new guidance from the U.S. National Security Agency, walks people through ways to secure their mobile device from location trackers as best as they can. Here are a few.

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Your phone, fitness tracker or any device that connects to the internet through a cell signal, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth can give yup you location — even if that device is powered off. So says a new guidance from the National Security Agency.

While most of us make use of location services every day, we may not be aware of exactly how our devices can track our whereabouts. Sometimes we want that tracking, such as when we're keeping tabs on children coming home from school, or allowing friends to know we're safe while we're out on a nightly run or on a hike, or trying to locate missing luggage. We also want 911 to know where we are when we call, and we certainly like being able to find a gas station or a shorter route home when mapping directions in our car.

But sometimes we don't want anyone to know our whereabouts. And while we may think we're hiding that information by turning off location tracking on our smartphone, for example, that step isn't good enough, said the NSA.

Female delivery person accepts next ride.We want apps to track us, such as when we're ordering an Uber or Lyft Getty Images/iStock

"Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that disabling location services on a mobile device does not turn off GPS, and does not significantly reduce the risk of location exposure," the NSA said. "Disabling location services only limits access to GPS and location data by apps. It does not prevent the operating system from using location data or communicating that data to the network."

Still tracked while cellular off

Perhaps most crucially, a device can still be tracked, and its location discovered, even if cellular is turned off the phone. That's because phones are typically receiving data through two other very important wireless signals: Wi-Fi and also Bluetooth. These signals send information to other devices like wireless headphones, for example, or smart watches.

Even more key, if someone turns off access to Bluetooth, data — like a location — can be stored on a device, and when that signal is turned back on, these details can be shared. The NSA even said that completely disabling Bluetooth "…may not be possible on some devices, even when a setting to disable BT exists," it wrote.

Fitness trackerFitness trackers, smart devices and other connected gadgets can also collect and transmit our locationGetty Images/iStock

Your phone isn't the only thing that can give up location data too. Your smartwatch, a fitness tracker, even a smart device — including tech in your car — can pick up data from other devices, like your phone, and share these details as well. We want that in many cases, for helping us track a run, for example. But consumers often want control of when we want that data shared, and not.

The NSA crafted the August 4, 2020 memo for what it considers those who are part of what it calls NSS/DoD system users which would include the military, Department of Defense and other Federal agencies. Still, consumers should certainly be aware of what a government group is advising other agencies to consider when using mobile devices as well.

How to limit location data as much as possible

There are ways to potentially stem location leaks as much as possible. The NSA recommends a host of options, including putting a device in a secure location and leaving it there. That's impractical to say the least for most people. But here are a few other suggestion the agency makes that most consumers can adopt, at least in part, if they want to lock down their device as much as they can:

  1. Turn off location services on any device that connects online through cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
  2. Turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when you're not actively needing them or using them
  3. Put your device in airplane mode — and make sure Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are off
  4. Check privacy settings on your apps, and make sure they're not using or sharing location information. Double check in particular apps that are designed to pick upon your location like maps, restaurant locaters, fitness apps, those apps that help you find your phone, and others
  5. Limit ad tracking, and consider resetting your Advertising ID on your device weekly
  6. If your device has a browser, set it to not allow location data usage
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