SAN FRANCISCO — Last week after my motorcycle malfunctioned and crashed on the freeway, I wanted only two simple things from technology: to call 911 and to tell loved ones where I could be found.
Coincidentally, I had been testing location-sharing tools from Apple, Google, Facebook and Snapchat. So before calling the police, I texted my partner, who was already tracking my location with several apps, letting her know I was hurt. When she opened Google Maps, she could see precisely where I was on the 101 South freeway.
But when she refreshed the map to follow the ambulance, she ran into the app’s shortcomings: Google showed I was at Costco (not where I wanted to be, injured or not) when I was actually strapped onto a stretcher heading toward San Francisco General Hospital.
Such is the state of location sharing on smartphones.
For years, tech companies have offered different ways for people to tell one another where they are. Yet all the popular location-sharing tools are limited or flawed, and in some cases broadcasting your location may not be worth the effort or worth draining your phone’s battery life. Even worse, location tracking raises numerous privacy concerns about who can snoop into your whereabouts.
Yet security experts agree that on smartphones, it is now practically impossible to stop location tracking. There is a multitude of ways for third parties to find out where we are, including cell towers, the metadata transmitted from telecommunications, and data logged on our phones.
“For the vast majority of people and the vast majority of circumstances, the benefits they get from sharing their whereabouts way exceed the risks that might be out there,” said Jeremiah Grossman, the head of security strategy for SentinelOne, a computer security company.
Here are some tips for the best- and worst-use cases for sharing your location using a range of old and brand-new location-sharing tools.
A Comparison of Tools
First, a primer on how different location-sharing products work.
Apple and Facebook offer location-sharing tools to drop a pin on a map to share your current location, or to let others follow your location in real time as you move around. Google recently added real-time location tracking in Google Maps. And Snapchat last month released an interactive map letting people share their location with friends indefinitely.
Apple’s location-sharing features are integrated into several apps: Apple Maps, Messages and Find My Friends. To share your location, open a text message, tap the information icon and tap Send My Current Location. To broadcast your location, tap Share My Location and choose to share a live update of your location for an hour, until the end of the day or indefinitely. From there, your friend could follow your location on a map through the Apple Maps or Find My Friends apps.
Google’s location-sharing tool is built into Google Maps. On the map, just tap the blue dot that indicates where you are and tap Share your location. From there, you can choose to share your location for a set duration, like one hour, or until you turn the feature off.
Facebook’s location sharing is embedded into its Messenger app. In a message, tap the + button, select Location and drop a pin to share your current location or broadcast your live location for up to an hour.
Finally, on Snapchat, with the camera open you can pinch the screen to open a map. From there, you can share your location with all your friends or specific friends. Your location is represented on the map as a cartoon figure called a Bitmoji. This isn’t useful for real-time location sharing because your location on the map updates only when you open the Snapchat app. To turn off location sharing, select Ghost Mode.
Be aware that even if you haven’t turned on location sharing in Snapchat, some people may be able to get a hint of your whereabouts if you use Our Stories, a feature for publishing public images or videos.
The new Snapchat map has raised privacy concerns among some parents and law enforcement officials, who said it was too easy for Snapchat users to add random people as friends, which could potentially let predators track a child’s location. A Snapchat spokeswoman said it was not possible to share your location with people who are not your friends on Snapchat.
In my tests, Apple’s Find My Friends and Facebook Messenger were quicker and more accurate with real-time location tracking than Google Maps, which had significant delays before refreshing with a current location. Google said its app reports someone’s location at intervals, from every few minutes to an hour, partly to save battery life.
The Best Times to Use Location Tracking
Location-tracking features have stirred controversy for the last decade. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit, said location-tracking technologies enabled law enforcement agencies to monitor people’s movements or advertisers to connect people’s online activities with their real identities.
In other words, used carelessly, location tracking may hurt your privacy. But used thoughtfully, it can be a powerful and efficient communication tool.
After testing location-sharing tools for two weeks, here are my suggestions for the best times to use them.
• When you make plans to meet friends somewhere like a movie theater, get in the habit of sharing your location through Apple’s iMessage, Google Maps or Facebook Messenger to broadcast your location for a short duration, like an hour. This way you can skip saying things like “I’m on my way” or “I’m running a few minutes behind” because people can simply follow you on the map.
• Consider using Apple’s Find My Friends, Facebook Messenger or Google Maps to share your location occasionally with your romantic partner. Location sharing can be useful for being considerate of your partner’s time and space. For example, I am less inclined to text my partner when I see she is at the office or driving on a freeway, but I am more inclined to text when I see she is at the grocery store to ask her to pick something up.
• Next time you plan an event at a large outdoor space, like a picnic in a park, do your friends a favor: Use Apple Maps or Facebook Messenger to drop a pin on a map with your current location so they can find you. Wandering around aimlessly in a crowded open space can be annoying.
And When Not to Use It
Here were some situations where broadcasting your location may be undesirable.
• Don’t share your location when meeting in an indoor space like a specific store in a mall. Most mapping apps are not yet designed for indoor spaces and are thus inaccurate for location sharing.
• Likewise, don’t bother sharing your location on a nature hike. Most national parks, for example, are in remote areas with no cell connection, so turning on location sharing in this situation would waste battery life.
• Parents should make sure children are not sharing their locations with strangers or bullies. With iPhones, you can create restrictions that prohibit your child from changing settings or adding followers inside Find My Friends. For Android phones, sign up to use Google’s parental controls tool Family Link to manage your child’s location-sharing settings. Parental control settings can block apps like Snapchat from being installed altogether.
• For safety reasons, avoid sharing your location publicly. Google makes it easy to publish a web link where anyone can follow your live location. To fend off the creepers, send the link only to the intended recipients; avoid posting it on public sites like Twitter or Facebook.
• The bottom line: Know your limits. “Use common sense,” Mr. Grossman said. “If you’re trying to hide from people, don’t publish your whereabouts.”