So, you’ve turned off Location History on your phone in an effort to maintain your privacy and limit the amount of data you share with the big tech companies. Well, it turns out Google may still be tracking your movements.
An AP investigation published Monday discovered that some of Google’s many different services are still tracking users’ every move on both iPhone and Android phones regardless of whether they’ve toggled the “Location History” setting on or off.
When using a service like Google Maps, Google will ask you to permit access to your iPhone or Android phone’s location data. When agreeing to this request, you allow Google Maps to record your location history, and display your location history on a timeline so you can view your daily travels.
On a Google support page for managing your Location History, the company says “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” However, as the AP investigation discovered, that isn’t exactly true.
Some examples of location-data logging the AP points to include Android’s automatic weather updates that still track your general location, Google’s search engine saving an exact location for each search query to your Google account, and even Google Maps itself snapshotting your location when you open the application.
AP began its inquiry into this location-tracking issue after a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley observed a notification on her Android phone asking her to rate a recent trip to Kohl’s even though she had turned off Location History.
It seems that even with Location History put on pause, a number of Google apps still automatically store your location data without asking.
In a statement to the AP, Google explained, “There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services. We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.”
To actually stop location services on your iPhone or Android device altogether, Google pointed AP to the “Web and App Activity” setting. This setting, turned on by default, controls various options for apps and services connected to your Google account.
As AP discovered upon further exploring these options, Google’s prompts further explain what each setting means, but only after you toggle each one on or off. Pausing Location History on your Google account webpage provides a prompt that informs you that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.”
On an Android phone, toggling the same setting off lets you know that “places you go with your devices will stop being added to your Location History map.” On an iPhone you’ll be warned that “none of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.”
Additionally, when toggling the “Web and App Activity” setting on through your Google account, you’re notified that the setting “saves the things you do on Google sites, apps, and services … and associated information, like location.”
Technically, Google is right in its explanation of each of these settings. Location History settings seem to only pertain to the actual logging of this location data on the phone for easy user access, the ability to view a timeline of precisely where you’ve been. Toggling this setting off does not affect Google’s ability to pinpoint your location and draw from this data what the company deems necessary to give you more accurate information.
In a statement provided to Mashable, a Google spokesperson said:
“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 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.”
Mashable was also provided with this link on Google’s location data policy.
Google previously faced scrutiny for a location-tracking issue late last year. The company was found to be accessing users’ location even when the GPS location tracking was off through “Cell ID codes” obtained through cellular towers.
Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist at Princeton and a former chief technologist for the FCC’s enforcement bureau, had a researcher from his lab confirm AP’s findings. Speaking to the AP, Mayer said, “If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off. That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”
It’s pretty clear with the AP’s findings that the settings options and language used to describe them are fairly confusing for the average iPhone and Android user. The question remains as to whether Google will clarify these privacy issues with updated options and information provided to consumers. However, with GDPR laws already changing many big tech companies’ policies regarding how they deal with European users’ privacy and data, Google may not have much of a choice.