By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Smartphones have some very powerful tools, including the ability to track and share your location. That can be a life saver if you’re lost and can provide reassurance to loved-ones. Both iPhones and Android phones — as well as apps like Google Maps — have tools to enable you to share your location with specific people. It’s a handy way to know when someone is likely to arrive at a location and can be used to help locate someone in an emergency.
Some people use this feature to share their location with trusted friends or family members when they go out on first dates or are in other situations where they think they might need emergency assistance.
But, if you’re in an abusive relationship, this safety tool can jeopardize your safety if your abuser has access to information that can locate you.
That’s why Apple, in cooperation with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Women’s Service Network, has developed Safety Check for the next version of iOS – the operating system for iPhones and iPads.
“Many people share passwords and access to their devices with a partner,” said Katie Skinner, Apple’s senior manager of user privacy settings. But, she added, “in abusive relationships, this can threaten personal safety and make it harder for victims to get help.”
Of course, there have always been ways to turn off location sharing, but when you’re in an emergency situation, you want these to be quick and easy to access. With the new feature, you’ll be able to quickly perform an emergency reset to “immediately reset access for all people and apps, and review your account security.” Emergency reset, said Skinner, “lets people in abusive situations quickly revoke an abuser’s access to their data and location, enabling them to cut ties and get to safety,”
That same screen will also take you to a place where you can manage sharing and access to “Customize which people and apps can access your information and review your account security.” That second option can enhance your safety by allowing you to share your location with a trusted friend who might need that information to help you in an emergency situation.
Safety Check also prevents access to your messages by helping you sign out of iCloud on all your other devices and limits messages and Facetime to the device in your hand.
The tool enables you to quickly review who has access to your location and information as well as what permissions you’ve given to apps.
If this feature works as promised (I have not yet been able to test it), it will work across apps, which is a great feature since it is possible to have numerous apps, including some not from Apple, that can know or share your location, and if the user interface is as it appeared in the demo, it should be easy to access, even in emergency situations where you might not be thinking as clearly or calmly as you ordinarily would.
Even though this new safety tool should be easy to use, it’s important to familiarize yourself with it in case you ever have to use it. And, while it’s mainly designed for people in abusive relationships, there could be other situations when you need to immediately suspend sharing of location and other information.
Turning off location on Android and current version of iOS
If you have an Android phone or an iPhone running the current or earlier versions of iOS, you can still quickly turn off location sharing.
On iOS 15, you can go to Settings, Privacy, Location Services and touch the screen slider to disable location for all apps That same screen will also allow you to review and revoke location privileges for specific apps.
On Android, it’s pretty much the same process. Go to settings, location and tap on the red slider to turn off all location features and scroll down to review which apps have location access.
Although turning off location in an emergency might make sense, it may also make sense to immediately review which people and apps have access to your location and manually reset them so that only people you trust can find you and then turn location services back on, which is essentially what the new Apple feature does for you, albeit more quickly and automatically.
Also, be aware that location services are required if you use any navigation app or any other app or feature that requires access to your location.
Google Maps, which works on both iPhone and Android, has a feature that allows you to share your location with any other Google Maps user, regardless of whether they use an iPhone or Android. You can access it by launching Google Maps, touching your round profile picture in the upper right corner and selecting Location Sharing. At that point you can see who you’re sharing with as well as the location of anyone sharing with you and add a new share or delete existing ones. As with all apps, Google still stop sharing your location if you turn off location sharing services.
General advice for device security
If there is any risk that you are living or staying with someone who might be abusive at any point in the future, you should consider taking extra precautions with your phone, including not sharing any passwords or PIN numbers that will let them use your phone if it’s locked. Also be sure your phone automatically locks after a few seconds. Be aware of where your phone is and who might have access to it and know that if the person knows your password, they can sign into Apple iCloud or Google’s Find my Android website to locate your phone, which typically enables them to locate you. It’s a good idea to avoid sharing passwords, though I know a lot of people do with partners and loved-ones. If you do, immediately change your password if you feel threatened.
While there are risks associated with location sharing, there are many beneficial uses, including examples of people who have been rescued as a result of their location getting into the right hands, so, as with any other powerful tool, the best solution isn’t necessarily to avoid using it but to know how to use it properly and cautiously.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.