How to Stop Facebook From Tracking Your iPhone’s Location

image credit: Adweek

published by Chad Evans
May 29, 2021 at 10:42 p.m.
  • iOS 14.5 adds new privacy notifications, alerting users about location-tracking apps while offering them an opportunity to opt out.
  • So far, about 96% of iOS users have chosen not to share their location with third-party apps.
  • Facebook can still track iOS users by recording location data stored in images and employing “pixels” in email messages.
  • Users can strip out EXIF location data from photos and block remote email images to protect their data from Facebook.

iOS 14.5 Adds New Privacy Controls

Corporations employ different business models to earn revenues. Companies like Apple develop devices and supporting technology, selling them to users at a determined price. Facebook and other social media companies generate revenue through advertising, which is more effective when targeting users based on personal information.

Governments and consumer advocates across the globe are raising concerns over Facebook’s privacy violations. Facebook contends that targeted ads are more relevant and allow free use of the platform. The Menlo Park social media company even shows a message to end-users informing them that tracking provides relevant ads and enables Facebook to remain free of charge.

The bulk of Facebook’s revenues derive from iPhone users. Although most people use Android, iPhone customers tend to earn more and spend more. Currently, the iPhone accounts for 61% of Facebook revenues.

Apple Counters Facebook Surveillance With New iOS 14.5 Feature

Consumers value privacy, and Apple wants to sell devices to as many customers as possible. Since its business model has little to do with advertising, Apple’s push to ensure privacy in its ecosystem appears to be both in earnest and in its best interests.

Cisco recently issued a report illustrating just how much consumers value privacy. According to the research, 60% of consumers are concerned about privacy. Of the more privacy-aware users, 30% have abandoned social media out of surveillance concerns. By appealing to privacy concerns and delivering, Apple’s products become even more appealing to consumers.

Apple delivered its most significant shift in privacy controls with its recent iOS 14.5 update. The new iOS version warns users when apps track their location, offering them the opportunity to opt out. As previously mentioned, most users choose not to have their expensive iPhone transformed into a corporate surveillance device to enrich Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook shareholders.

Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary have gone to great lengths to convince users to opt into tracking. Estimates suggest that Facebook will lose $8 billion in the next four quarters due to Apple’s privacy changes. 

The company can still earn ad revenue; however, Apple hobbled its advertising business by denying the social media giant iOS and iPadOS users’ data. Facebook still has a few tricks to gather personal data. This article will show you how to maneuver around Facebook’s less obvious information gathering.

Facebook Still Collects Data From Apple Users

While Apple’s privacy move is bold, it seems more about optics. The company actively promotes and markets privacy as a feature. The marketing reminds users that Apple is looking out for them; however, Facebook can still gather data from iOS and iPadOS users.

Whenever people post an image to Facebook or Instagram, their services collect the Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data before replacing it with an internal representation of the same data. Since EXIF data records GPS coordinates of photographed locations, both Facebook and Instagram can infer users’ whereabouts by accessing this data.

Using EXIF data in this manner isn’t as convenient as Location Services. Most people aren’t constantly posting photos to Instagram and Facebook. Furthermore, posting an image doesn’t necessarily reveal where you are now. If you’re posting vacation photos on Facebook after returning home, the platform will assume you’re still elsewhere.

In addition to EXIF data, companies like Facebook gather user data with email “pixels”. These invisible images are only one-by-one pixel in size and are usually transparent. The user downloads the pixel by opening an email, providing the server location data and the message viewing time.

Facebook goes beyond merely using pixels. The company evangelizes this sneaky tool used to spy on the public without their knowledge. Facebook actively encourages its advertising partners to use pixels.

If this isn’t enough, Facebook continually tries to trick users into opting back into location services. If one reads their privacy policy and follows the “About Facebook Ads” link, the social media company once again tries to convert the user into being tracked. The company goes so far as to add a tracking activation switch in the “About Facebook Ads” screen.

It’s clear Facebook and its subsidiaries will do everything they can to track you. Let’s look at how to stop this unwarranted surveillance.

How to Stop Facebook From Tracking Your iPhone’s Location

When it comes to tracking users, Facebook is both unscrupulous and relentless. Despite Apple’s best efforts, Facebook continues to appeal to the end-user while resorting to sneaky tricks to gather information against their will. You can still entirely opt-out of Facebook’s tracking; however, it takes a little more effort than turning off Location Services.

First, ensure that you’ve upgraded to the latest version of iOS. iOS 14.5 and later provide warnings when apps gather your location data. Although you may have opted into tracking when you installed the app, users are often unaware of how Facebook follows them pervasively and relentlessly.

After you’ve upgraded iOS, you can turn off Location Services for Facebook through Settings. Tap on Settings > Privacy > Tracking and turn off Facebook and any other apps that you don’t want to track you.

Removing email pixels is similarly straightforward; however, there are some side effects. Since emails often contain remote images for the sake of aesthetics, many of your emails will only contain text until you download the server-side images. On the other hand, you’ll use less cellular data by not downloading remote email images. Thus, removing email pixels enhances privacy, conserves cellular data, and speeds up email retrieval.

You can stop Facebook and others from tracking you with pixels by tapping on Settings > Mail. Next, scroll down and turn off the switch labeled “Load Remote Images”. You’ll be able to load remote images on emails by tapping the “Load All Images” link at the top of the message. Doing so may load a tracking pixel into the email. If this is a concern, only load images for emails when necessary.

Myriad apps offer the capability to strip out EXIF data from images. iOS provides the ability to turn off all location tracking for photos; however, this makes it more challenging to manage photos. The whole intent of EXIF data is to bundle location, temporal and other data with the image, so end-users can better catalog photographs. Unfortunately, Facebook and others exploit this for profit.

It’s better to strip EXIF metadata out of photos before posting them to Facebook. Ideally, you should duplicate the photo, strip the EXIF data out of the copy, and post it. After you post the more private photo, you can delete it to keep your photos more manageable. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to strip EXIF data from a duplicate image:

  1. Download and install Photo & Video Metadata Remover from the App Store
  2. Launch the Photos app on your iPhone or iPad.
  3. Find the photo you want to share and tap the “Share” button.
  4. Tap on the “Duplicate” button.
  5. Launch the Photo & Video Metadata Remover app.
  6. Find and select the duplicate photo you created in step 4.
  7. Tap on the gear wheel below and choose “Remove Metadata” from the pop-up menu.
  8. You can now launch Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media app to share this photo without revealing its location.

Appledystopia has no affiliation with the developer of Photo & Video Metadata Remover. Numerous apps provide the same functionality, so feel free to use them. This is simply the first app I found that removes image metadata without any other features.

There are some cases where stripping out EXIF data makes no sense. If you’re taking a selfie in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, people will figure out that you were in San Francisco. It’s best to strip out EXIF data when it reveals something personal, such as your workplace or residence’s location.

What’s the Harm in Facebook Knowing Everything About You?

Privacy is an illusion. None of us can live perfectly sheltered lives as long as we’re on “the grid”. We trade off some personal information for convenience; however, most people are unaware of how little privacy we have.

In less free societies, despotic regimes gather personal data to use against their own people. While this happens to some extent in free, democratic societies, digging up “dirt” and using it against “troublemakers” is standard practice in despotic regimes.

Your digital profile is permanent. Although modern consumer protection laws give us the illusion of privacy, Facebook and others sell our data to third parties. They may also retain data in databases after it’s “deleted”. Any decent database engineer knows that one rarely deletes anything from a database. Instead, it’s usually flagged as deleted yet still stored, backed up, and archived. Part of this is a consequence of laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which arose from Enron’s mass destruction of documents.

Regardless of the legislation, it’s standard practice to flag database rows as deleted instead of permanently eliminating them. Since database administrators rarely permanently delete data, records can easily be “unflagged” as deleted with a simple update query. It’s not only still in the database; it’s effortless to restore or ignore its deletion entirely when shipping data to third parties. There’s simply no transparency around any of this, both intentionally and because Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand his own business.

Under Congressional scrutiny, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that whether Facebook deletes your personal data permanently or retains it is complicated. Once again, the Facebook founder reveals his unfamiliarity with “his own” product:

SEN. DEAN HELLER, R-NEV.: How long do you keep a user’s data, once they — after — after they’ve left? If they — if they choose to delete their account, how long do you keep their data?

ZUCKERBERG: I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I know we try to delete it as quickly as is reasonable. We have a lot of complex systems, and it work — takes a while to work through all that.

But I think we try to move as quickly as possible, and I can follow up or have my team follow up …

Zuckerberg and his team did follow up with the Congressional panel. The Facebook team explained that they permanently delete data in most cases; however, the company cannot remove data shared with third parties. It’s akin to putting toothpaste back in the tube, as these third parties share data with others. The deletion does not cascade into third-party databases, which is a glaring privacy problem. Facebook provides numerous cases where they hold on to data from deleted accounts.

Facebook offers no transparency. Congress and end-users are left to trust that Facebook goes against standard database practices and deletes users’ content from the database entirely, including all backups. As someone who works in technology, I find this to be a dubious claim.

Understandably, most corporate leaders wouldn’t understand the nitty-gritty details of coding within their own products. Mark Zuckerberg was never an experienced software engineer. It’s surprising, however, that he didn’t take the time to prepare for a Congressional hearing.

This, more than anything, found me deleting my Facebook account. It’s probably not really erased but instead flagged as such, with my data sold off to third parties — a standard practice for the Menlo Park social media giant.

Facebook seems so inviting. The company claims to create an environment to help connect people throughout the world and build communities. Unfortunately, there’s a darker side to social media. Nations such as Syria use social media to find and imprison dissidents. In our own nation, authorities use Facebook and other communities to track down criminals, such as the January 6 insurrectionists. While this is a legitimate use of social media to achieve criminal justice, despots can pervert these tools for totalitarian ends. The best way to prevent this from happening is to stop widespread data gathering.

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