Apparently My Smartphone is Telling Everyone Exactly Where I Am Right Now. Should I Care?

Snapchat’s new virtual map, showing us each others’ locations in unnerving detail, has prompted concerns about privacy. But didn’t we give that up long ago?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Apparently my smartphone is telling everyone exactly where I am right now. Should I care?” was written by Elle Hunt, for theguardian.com on Friday 7th July 2017 06.49 UTC

So, er – can you tell where I am right now?

You don’t have to be on image-sharing app Snapchat to have heard about its controversial new “Snap Map”, which shows users their friends’ locations in near-real time, and disconcerting detail. Picture cheery cartoon avatars identified in not just suburbs, not even just streets, but at specific addresses.

The social media site is dusting itself off after slowing growth, plummeting value, and Facebook’s unabashed cannibalisation of all the features that made Snapchat popular – but the reaction to its new offering has been mixed.

To quote one woman on Twitter: “Snap Map is cool except I don’t want everyone knowing where I fucking live.”

True to form for the notoriously impenetrable Snapchat, the Snap Map is not at all obvious, accessible only by pinching your fingers, as though to zoom out, while in the camera window. It was introduced two weeks ago to allow friends to easily share their whereabouts, so “meeting up can be a cinch”. Snapchat gave the example of messaging a friend you’d observed (from your careful study of the Snap Map) to be at the beach, to say: “Beach day?”

Because nothing makes people want to spend time with you than giving them the impression you’re tracking their every move!

For all its effectiveness as a guilt-tripping tool, the feature has prompted concerns about users’ safety and privacy, particularly given Snapchat’s popularity with teenagers. Child safety groups fear it could facilitate bullying or stalking; Snapchat, in a statement, stressed that location sharing is “completely optional”.

You do control not only whether you appear on the map, but to whom – either all your friends, or just a select group, who you choose the first time you enter Snap Map. “So if you’re friends with your boss, you can still keep your location on the down low during a ‘sick day’ 😉,” says Snapchat. (Winking emoji, app’s own.)

The problem with this is that it puts the onus of granting and revoking access on the individual. It’s easy to give your friends permission and forget you’ve done so, or assume that no one’s actually looking.

Yet here I am, observing on my own Snap Map friends around the world – some of whom, I see, have recently moved house.

I have enabled “ghost mode”, which means my sassy Bitmoji self is absent from the Snap Map. I was acting on the advice of a child safety group, that location sharing “can allow people to build up a picture of where you spend your time”.

Frankly, the thought of watching my daily shlep between work and home depresses even me – the imagined picture can only be better.

By no means are these concerns over location sharing and privacy specific to Snapchat. In fact, the Snap Map is merely the latest and very literal interpretation of the same technology that is used by just about every app on your smartphone. If you’re an iPhone user, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services, and you’ll see what I mean – that’s a list of every app that draws on your approximate location, as determined by GPS, cellular and wifi networks and Bluetooth. If you log in here, you can see it for yourself.

With Uber, Find My iPhone, and weather apps, location tracking is fundamental to their function. In many, many more cases – perhaps even most – it’s incidental. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, for example, all work perfectly fine without access to your location data – it just means geotagging your photos isn’t immediate, and your news is probably less local. But whether consciously or not, people seem to share their location freely, even with apps that don’t really need it.

Why tech companies want access to that data is a no-brainer – the more information they have on their users’ habits and preferences, the better. But the fact that we let them get away with it points to a widespread acceptance of location sharing, where it’s seen as not creepy or invasive but simply part of the technology tapestry – the irony being, of course, that the technology tapestry is fundamentally creepy and invasive. By visualising location data on a map, Snapchat has simply made its monitoring of us explicit and accessible to everyone – and suggested it’s not only useful, but fun. The response to its “stalkerish” Snap Map suggests that may be a bridge too far for many, even if they happily share their data with tech companies.

It also indicates that many iPhone users are not aware they’ve had access to a similar feature for years. An app called Find Friends comes installed on iPhones by default, and allows you to share your location with approved contacts. (You can also do it on an ad hoc basis through iMessage, by tapping on the ‘i’ in the top-right of an individual message thread. For Android, there’s a similar app called Find My Friends.)

Find Friends can be a great tool for parents wanting to keep track of their children’s movements, or partners hoping to loop up during a busy day. I used it regularly a couple of years ago when I was at university and my personal boundaries were lower.

I would share my location with my sister, my flatmate, and my best friend. It made spur-of-the-minute catch-ups easy and perfunctory texts like “on my way!” and “are you home?” redundant. My sister once used it to facilitate a speedy getaway, picking me up from a remote suburb I’d woken up in the morning after a date.

But Find Friends’ occasional usefulness was tempered by how uncomfortably close it skirted towards surveillance. My flatmate would sometimes opt to hide his location from me, prompting more questions, concern and suspicion than if he hadn’t made it available to me in the first place. And I discovered my friend was in a relationship weeks before she told me about it, after noticing her at a strange house very early some mornings, and late some nights. I hadn’t even been trying.

That was enough for me to tap out. Most instances of location sharing are harmless: perfunctory at worst, and timesavers at best. But when sharing with individuals, you can’t be sure of what they’re getting from it. An app can use your data only if you allow it to do so, and the arrival of the Snap Map on the scene is a timely reminder to review your own settings. You may decide to limit location sharing only to those apps that won’t work without it – and you may discover, as I did, you’re still sharing your location with your former flatmate.

Logging into Find Friends for the first time in about four years, I was surprised to see both his current, exact location, and my sister’s. (My friend was no longer on the grid, which seemed fair enough.) He was in his new home city; my sister was at work. For old time’s sake, I asked the app to notify me when she left. Three hours later, she did. And it did.

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