Google clarifies how it tracks a user's location even if they turn the setting off
- Google tweaks help page describing how its "Location History" works
- An investigation found some Google apps stored user location with the setting off
- The privacy issue affects iPhone and Android users
After an investigation from the Associated Press revealed many Google services store your location data even if you've used a privacy setting that says they won't, Google updated the page to clarify that "some data may be saved". But it has not changed the location-tracking practice.
Previously, the help page had stated:
"… with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."The page now states:
"This setting does not affect other location services on your device" and acknowledges that "some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps."
Wait. Google tracked me even if I told it not to?
Lots of Google apps use your location information, which it stores in a "timeline" (basically a picture of your daily travels) handled by a setting called Location History.
The AP found some Google apps stored time-stamped data without asking you and if you turned Location History off.
Google said to stop it from saving location makers, you had to turn off a second setting called "Web and App Activity" that was enabled by default.
If you turned Location History off but left Web and App Activity on, Google only stopped adding to your "timeline". It did not stop Google's collection of other location markers.
You can delete those markers by hand, but you need to do every one individually.
To test this, Princeton postdoctoral researcher Gunes Acar carried an Android phone with Location History off and shared the data with AP.
He was tracked:
- On two train trips to New York
- On visits to The High Line park, Chelsea Market, Hell's Kitchen, Central Park and Harlem
- To his home address.
Things like automatic weather updates on Android phones pinpoint your rough location.
And the AP found that even doing a Google search for something that had nothing to do with location — like "chocolate chip cookies" or "kids science kits" — pinpointed your precise latitude and longitude and saved it to your Google account.
This happened to you if your phone ran on Google's Android operating system or if you're an iPhone user who uses Google for maps or search.
Here's what Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communication Commission's enforcement bureau Jonathan Mayer said about the practice before Google changed its help page:
"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," Mr Mayer said."That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have."
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A popup appears when you "pause" Location History on your Google account webpage. There the company notes: "Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps."
Google offers additional information in a popup that appears if you re-activate the Web & App Activity setting — an uncommon action for many users, since this setting is on by default.
That popup states that, when active, the setting, "saves the things you do on Google sites, apps, and services … and associated information, like location".
Warnings when you're about to turn Location History off via Android and iPhone device settings are more difficult to interpret.
On Android, the popup explains: "Places you go with your devices will stop being added to your Location History map."
On the iPhone, it simply reads: "None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History."
Here's how to stop Google tracking you
Fair warning, doing any of these will affect several Google services and devices.
Things like maps, the Google Assistant or the Google Home either won't work at all or will have their functionality severely reduced.
For any device:
- Fire up your browser and go to myactivity.google.com. Sign into Google if you haven't already. On the upper left drop-down menu, go to "Activity Controls." Turn off both "Web & App Activity" and "Location History." That should prevent precise location markers from being stored to your Google account.
- If you use Google Maps, adjust your location setting to "While Using" the app; this will prevent the app from accessing your location when it's not active. Go to Settings - Privacy - Location Services and from there select Google Maps to make the adjustment.
- In the Safari web browser, consider using a search engine other than Google. Under Settings - Safari - Search Engine, you can find other options like Bing or DuckDuckGo. You can turn location off while browsing by going to Settings - Privacy - Location Services - Safari Websites, and turn this to "Never". (This still won't prevent advertisers from knowing your rough location based on IP address on any website.)
- You can also turn Location Services off to the device almost completely, from Settings - Privacy - Location Services.
- Under the main settings icon click on "Security & location." Scroll down to the "Privacy" heading. Tap "Location". You can toggle it off for the entire device.
- Use "App-level permissions" to turn off access to various apps. Unlike the iPhone, there is no setting for "While Using". You cannot turn off Google Play services, which supplies your location to other apps if you leave that service on.
- Sign in as a "guest" on your Android device by swiping down from top and tapping the downward-facing caret, then again on the torso icon. Be aware of which services you sign in on, like Chrome.