Like Captives In a Human Zoo, Google May Be Tracking Your Location Even If You Tell Them Not To

Tuesday, 14 August 2018 - 10:35AM
Technology
Tuesday, 14 August 2018 - 10:35AM
Like Captives In a Human Zoo, Google May Be Tracking Your Location Even If You Tell Them Not To
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Image: Pixabay Composite/Outer Places
After the recent revelation that Facebook played fast and loose with millions of users' data and turned a blind eye to its abuse by third parties, a lot of tech companies have been forced to reassess how open they are about collecting personal data. One of the most recent battlegrounds has been over smartphone location tracking—the ability for apps to track where you go, when you go there, and how long you stay there, then sell that info to advertisers. Google has gotten in trouble in the past for secretly tracking users using cell tower information even after they explicitly turn location tracking "off" for Google apps, but it seems that scandal wasn't the end of it—after publicly announcing that it would end that practice, Google is still finding ways to track users despite their assurances to the contrary.

When you open an app like Google Maps and allow it to access your location, the app will track your location over time and add it to your Location History, a program that creates a timeline of where you go. This kind of data can be sold to local businesses who buy ads through Google, or who want to figure out metrics like foot traffic. If that makes you uncomfortable, Google tells you that you can always turn it off. According to the support page for Location History, "You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."

It turns out that's not true.

According to a study conducted by the Associated Press and backed up by Princeton University, turning Location History off doesn't stop Google from tracking where you go—Google Maps will still take a geo-snapshot of your location when you open the app, as will weather updates and even web searches, the latter of which will try to get your exact coordinates. To turn all of this off, you have to go to "Web and App Activity" and disable location tracking there, too. This information is poorly conveyed to users, and may mislead people into believing that they're no longer being tracked.

According to Jonathan Mayer, the former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement bureau: "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."

You can find an easy guide to actually stopping Google from tracking your location here.

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