5G Making Smartphone Location Privacy An Even Bigger Joke

The fifth generation of mobile networks is promising nothing short of another industrial revolution fueled by a broad range of new technologies expected to create tens of millions of new jobs and consequently boost the global economy but the next connectivity standard won't spell exclusively good news for consumers.

That's perhaps the most evident by how the concept of smartphone location privacy is poised to change once 5G connections become ubiquitous. Namely, having any expectation of privacy while communicating with 5G networks will be frivolous, industry watchers warn.

Even today's wireless solutions combining 4G LTE with GPS and similar satellite systems are capable of triangulating positions of individual devices with great precision, so long as they aren't operating in truly horrible circumstance (i.e. a combination of bad weather and weak signal reception). With 5G, that accuracy is bound to increase more than tenfold as cell stations enabling the new technology will become significantly more numerous.

The bulk of the latest 5G specification, both non-standalone and independent, reflies on millimeter-wave frequencies since those bands offer massive improvements on the bandwidth front while not being heavily contested. On the other hand, the reason why the TV industry and many other segments aren't in a rush to join the mmWave accumulation race is that the high-frequency nature of those bands makes them extremely difficult to work with.

Compared to mid- and low-band signal, mmWave telecommunications allow for a small-scale performance boost but are much more challenging to scale. High-frequency wireless signals have a tendency to get lost in everything from foliage to rain, not to mention more solid obstacles like windows and walls.

In an effort to offset that inherent flaw of mmWave spectrum, carriers are now investing billions in large-scale deployment of small cell stations. Even assuming contemporary positional systems stay the same for the time being, the current approach to locating electronics primarily relies on triangulation, so having more signal-bouncing beams will consequently make device location tracking much more precise.

For years, Google allowed Android users to choose between high-accuracy location settings and a less intrusive alternative that disabled some features of the operating systems and its apps but also consumed less power. That option was surprisingly scrapped with a move to Android 9 Pie last year and there's no indication of a return being on the charts.

Contemporary Android devices can hence either do their very best to pinpoint their exact location or periodically check on their GPS coordinates even if the "Location" setting is turned off. Google already received a fair bit of criticism for the decision, yet consistently defended it as a natural move toward fully leveraging today's wireless networks.

Anyone paranoid about their digital privacy hence won't rest any easier once humanity starts taking advantage of 5G connectivity on a large scale. Initial rollouts of consumer-grade services are already underway in the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, and several other countries. The global 5G race is still anyone's for the taking as well and next-gen mobile technologies are finally receiving mainstream media attention following years of hype generated by the wireless segment.

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About the Author

Dominik Bosnjak

Senior Writer
Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]