You’d think that turning off Google’s location tracking would do just that (tracking your location history). Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Recently it has been discovered that with the tracking option turned off, Google is still able to record information regarding your location. As it turns out, the tech giant can do that through its other services such as Google Maps, Chrome browser weather updates. It seems that the company is eager to get their hands on your data any way they can.
An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) has revealed that some Google services, both on their Android operating system, and on rival Apple’s iOS, will store location data even if the user has elected not to do so in their privacy settings. Following the AP investigation, researchers from Princeton University, and some other organisations have now confirmed the findings.
Google has generally been considered upfront and honest when it comes to the collection of user data, including location information. In its Google Maps app, users can allow the app to keep a long-term record of their movements. This timeline feature enables users to look back over their location data history to see where they, or at least their smartphone, went on any given day.
Many security-conscious groups have raised concerns about the privacy implications of storing such data, pointing to cases where law enforcement has used a phone’s location history as evidence against its owner. In response to these concerns, Google gives users the option to turn off or pause a setting called ‘location history.’
According to Google, through their support page, “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” However, it turns out that the situation is, in fact, more complicated than this.
Even with this setting turned off, Google still pings user’s location data when they open the Maps app or when they check a weather report. This information, including precise latitude and longitude coordinates, is then stored in the user’s Google account.
A similar trick is used on Google Photos. Users are fond of the application due to its easy to use interface and unlimited data storage. Although, only a handful of users are aware that Google uses complex algorithms to analyse every photo and create social and psychological profiles based on the places, things and people you take pictures of. And even though there is a way to delete Google Photos, the question is if the previously mentioned data gets deleted together with the photos.
Now, privacy campaigners and cybersecurity researchers are calling Google out for what they consider to be misleading claims about its data collection policies. According to researchers, Google’s current policy is deceptive, and the company has an obligation to either be more transparent about what data the setting will affect or ensure that changing the ‘location history’ affects location history across its services.
Web and App Activity
It turns out that there is a way of ensuring that Google doesn’t store any location data across any of its services. However, it is far from clear how to do this. To prevent the tracking of location data of any kind, users need to disable a setting, which is usually turned on by default, called ‘web and app activity.’ While this option doesn’t mention location services specifically, it needs to be disabled alongside the ‘location history’ setting to prevent Google from storing location data entirely.
In addition to the location data, Google also records the websites that their users visit, and the searches that they perform online. This information is then used to serve up targeted advertising to users, or ‘ad personalisation,’ as Google calls it.
By visiting the relevant page on the Google website, you can log in to your Google account and turn off individual tracking settings. This page will also reveal to you the other data that Google is collecting, including ‘Voice and Audio’, and YouTube browsing habits. Switching tracking options off here will effectively prevent Google’s tracking. You can also visit the ‘location history’ page to prevent future tracking, and you can delete previous location data. Another useful tactic is to use a VPN. A VPN will keep your browsing history private, obscure your IP address, and encrypt your internet traffic, which will significantly improve your overall online privacy.
There are a number of legitimate reasons for Google to gather users’ data, and their claims about improving services are not entirely without merit. However, as this case demonstrates, it is crucial that they are upfront and honest with their users about what data they collect and how they do it.
Last updated on August 1st, 2019.
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