Private Location History without Google, Facebook & Co.

Location History (CC0 by Did you ever tried to remember where you have been at a specific date and time – especially if you woke up on a saturday morning and can’t remember how you got into your bed? Well no, this article won’t be about hangovers and blackouts but may help you in this and of course in other cases when you try to remember where you have been.

Nearly everybody is carrying around a smartphone with lots of sensors that we can use to solve such a puzzle. There are many apps and services that offer a location history to you. Google for example offers the Location History which is directly integrated in Google’s apps for Android. Activating this will constantly track your location and send it to Google. But what if you don’t want to tell companies where you are at the moment and let them save and analyze this sensitive information?

I recently found an alternative solution for constantly tracking your location using your smartphone but without giving the data away. The essential part of this is the Android app GPSLogger: The app runs constantly in the background and tracks your location. In constrast to other apps that are aiming at tracking your location at the highest accuracy, this app won’t drain your battery much, if you find a compromise between accuracy of the log and battery lifetime. On my Sony Xperia Z3 compact, the app is listed with 10-15% battery usage when using the following settings in the app, but produces a relatively accurate track of my location:

  • Location Providers: GPS, Network, Passive
  • Time between Logs: 60 sec
  • Leave GPS activated between fixes: No
  • Distance Filter: 10 meters
  • Accuracy Filter: 500 meters
  • Retry Time Interval for accuracy filter: 60 seconds

Concerning the accuracy filter, a higher accuracy will give you better results but will also drain your smartphone’s battery faster as GPS is used very often. If you use a lower accuracy, the app will propably use only cell towers for getting your location, but even if you stay at the same place, your mobile will switch the towers from time to time, which will result in jumps in your history. As from personal experience, I recommend you to always enable WiFi on your device, as the surrounding access points (even if you can’t log into them) will let your smartphone get a location fix without using GPS with a relatively good accuracy.

Using this app, the location information can for example be saved to a GPX file directly on your smartphone. These files aren’t very big so you can view and “archive” them there, but thats not very comfortable. Additionally, the app offers automatic uploads to Google Drive and Dropbox or send it via email. You will say, these aren’t very private solutions as these services are again operated by big companies, but these are solutions that are easy to set up by everyone and I hope Google or Dropbox won’t scan every GPX file in your account. If you have more time for setting up your private location history, you can get an FTP server to automatically upload the files using the app.

In my case, the GPX files are saved in a folder, that is automatically synced with an ownCloud account on my private server using FolderSync. This solution also has the advantage, that I can browse the location files very easily and access them from everywhere. Using the ownCloud app GPX Viewer extended I can additionally view the GPX files directly in the browser without having to install any desktop software.

Having used the app for a while, I must say that you have to set up this manually which clearly isn’t as comfortable as using e.g. Google’s Location History by setting one checkbox in the Google settings, but instead it is private. Additionally the location history isn’t stored on a server in real time, as constant uploads of the files will drain your battery and high-speed data volume for your mobile, but for me it is ok. Besides this, the features are comparable to other solutions and will suite most people.

Edit 2015-06-09: I recently came back from a trip to the USA. During my stay, I had no mobile data connection, which is required to find the current location without GPS only by cell towers and Wifi hotspots. For those of you that think, constantly querying the current location using GPS will drain your battery: no it doesn’t. After I got out from the plane, the first GPS fix needed some time (I think about 20 minutes), but after that the location was always found in about 5 seconds by GPS. There was no battery drain, in fact I could not notice any changes in batterly life correlated with the app. The quality of the GPS track was similar to the “normal” one, except when beeing in a city with skyscrapers, which make the GPS accuracy drop drastically.

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