Google has become clingy to a point where it won’t stop tracking your movements even when you explicitly ask it not to. According to an investigation by the Associated Press (AP), many Google services on iPhones and Android devices store the user’s location data even when the privacy setting to allow this has been turned off.
According to a recently published report by the Associated Press, AP’s findings were verified by computer science researchers at Princeton University. On the face of it, it seems Google is candid about asking permission to use the user’s location information when launching Google Maps for the first time. If the user agrees to let the app record location over time, Maps will show that history to the user in the ‘Timeline’ section. The app even lets the user ‘pause’ this setting so they can have it back on after a certain period of time. Ideally, this should stop Google from tracking one's location once paused. In fact, Google’s support page on the matter says, “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”
Here’s the problem: Google doesn’t stop tracking location even when Location History is paused. Google apps automatically save time-stamped location data without asking. According to AP’s investigation, Google stores this even when it’s seemingly unnecessary, like while searching for topics like “chocolate chip cookies” and “kids science kits”. The same happens when weather information is retrieved or when Maps is simply opened. This privacy issue reportedly affects about two billion Android device-users and hundreds of millions of iPhone users who use Google for maps or searches.
“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,” commented Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau.
Google still claims it’s in the right and is offering complete control over what is being recorded. “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,” a Google spokesperson had said to AP. “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,” Google told Digit.in through an email reply.
Google’s explanation convinced few law-making authorities in the US. Critics, on the other hand, believe Google’s need to track location so relentlessly comes from its drive to boost advertising revenue. According to AP, it is possible to erase all stored data concerning the user’s location but is painstaking as it must be carefully selected, reviewed, and then erased.
In light of the privacy-starved digital environment we live in today, tech companies are increasingly feeling the pressure of making privacy tools and settings more visible to users. Facebook's privacy overhaul, and the entire exercise to aquaint users with better ways of managing their data on the platform, can be seen as an example in the right direction, even if the security review by the social network followed a huge user data leak.
You can head over to this Google Accounts page to review all the data Google has acquired about you over time. Called My Activity, it allows you to view (and delete) all recorded location markers and other data from the past.