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Google Tracks and Stores Your Location Data Even if You Opt Out

Aug. 14, 2018
6 min read
Google Tracks and Stores Your Location Data Even if You Opt Out
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Sneaking out for a drink with some friends on a work night? Skipping out on the gym in favor of more Netflix and chill? Your boss or your spouse may never know... but Google does.

The Associated Press revealed that Google tracks user information via location data on a number of Google products, including Google Maps, even when users explicitly opted out of allowing the company to store that information. The privacy issue affects around two billion global users of devices running Google’s Android operating software, as well as hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search functionality, according to the AP.

The AP's technical investigation research data was confirmed by computer-science researchers from Princeton University, who confirmed the AP’s findings on multiple Android devices; the AP conducted its own tests on several iPhones with the same results.

Princeton University privacy researcher Gunes Acar spent several days serving as a human guinea pig for the investigation, generating a map from data saved to his Google account despite his smartphone's “Location History” having been turned off. Journalists at the AP were able to identify Acar's home address and track Acar's movements based on his Web and app activity alone, which he had shared with the news agency for the sake of the experiment. The map includes Acar’s train commute on two trips to New York, as well as visits to The High Line park, Chelsea Market, Hell’s Kitchen, Central Park and Harlem. Acar's home address was manually redacted by the AP – not by Google's data.

Princeton researcher Gunes Acar found that, even with his "location history" setting turned off, Google still tracked his movements over several days of non-authorized activity.
Princeton researcher Gunes Acar found that, even with his "location history" setting turned off, Google still tracked his movements over several days of non-authorized activity. Image courtesy of the Associated Press.

"For the most part, Google is upfront about asking permission to use your location information," the AP admitted. "An app like Google Maps will remind you to allow access to location if you use it for navigating. If you agree to let it record your location over time, Google Maps will display that history for you in a 'timeline' that maps out your daily movements."

At first glance, it might not seem like that big of a deal; after all, it's nice to not have to repeatedly input one's home address into the Google Maps app in order to figure out the best route home. But what exactly are the ramifications of having your actions tracked on a minute-by-minute basis? Location tracking is powerful enough that, just this past March, Raleigh police leveraged a warrant against Google in order to access data regarding smartphone smartphones usage near a murder scene. But while the implications for crime resolution may be positive, the impact on everyday individual privacy is extremely insidious.

Google automatically stores a record of its users' location as soon as they fire up the Google Maps app, even before they input any destination or "current location" information. Other searches, which seemingly have nothing to do with location, such as “chocolate chip cookies,” or “kids science kits,” pinpoint a user's precise latitude and longitude — accurate to the square foot — and save it to their Google accounts, according to the AP's findings.

A Google spokesperson told TPG, “Location History is a Google product that is entirely opt in, and users have the controls to edit, delete, or turn it off at any time. As the [AP] story notes, we make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience when they do things like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions."

But many strongly disagree with Google's statement. "If Google is representing to its users that they can turn off or pause location tracking but it's nevertheless tracking their location, that seems like textbook deception to me," Alan Butler, senior council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Wired.

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"Tracking people without their consent and without proper controls in place is creepy and wrong," said the UC Berkeley graduate researcher, K. Shankari, who first alerted the AP to the privacy issue in a blog post published on May 20. In response to the AP's discovery, Shankari said that she is "not opposed to background location tracking in principle. It just really bothers me that it is not explicitly stated."

According to Wired, users must navigate to a setting buried deep within their Google Accounts called Web & App Activity, which defaults to sharing not just location data, but the user's IP address and more. "Finding that setting isn't easy. At all," said writer Emily Dreyfuss, who noted that "it takes eight taps on an Android phone—if you know exactly where you're going—to even access" the "clear descriptions" that Google claims to offer its users who want to truly opt out of location tracking.

"Most people who explicitly turned off their Location History tracking ... would have assumed they had already taken all steps necessary to keep their location private," Dreyfuss said. She further pointed out that, although Google offers three separate "Help" pages on location management, none of them made mention of the Web and App Activity page through which users begin reclaiming their privacy settings.

If you want the shortcut through the labyrinth of technical settings, Wired offered step-by-step instructions, which we're sharing below:

Sign in to your Google account on a browser on iOS or your desktop, or through the Android settings menu. In the browser, access your account settings by finding Google Account in the dropdown in the upper right-hand corner, then head to Personal Info & Privacy, choose Go to My Activity, then in the left-hand nav click Activity Controls. Once there you'll see the setting called Web & App Activity, which you can toggle off.
On your Android phone, go from Google settings to Google Account, then tap on Data & personalization. You'll find Web & App Activity there; toggle the blue Web & App Activity slider to off. Google will then give you a popup warning: "Pausing Web & App Activity may limit or disable more personalized experiences across Google services. For example, you may stop seeing more relevant search results or recommendations about places you care about. Even when this setting is paused, Google may temporarily use information from recent searches in order to improve the quality of the active search session."
Featured image by NurPhoto via Getty Images

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