By Des Nnochiri
We all know Google wants to be in all our business. Whether we’re shopping, streaming, searching, or taking a stroll, Google is gathering vast amounts of data on us through our ubiquitous smartphones and other connected devices.
However, up until recently, you may have thought that if you disabled your location history on your mobile device, you’d be safe from the prying eyes of the Silicon Valley voyeur, right?
Google is not so keen to make it easy for you to keep your location a secret, and apps such as Google Maps and Chrome can continue to track your movements, even when the location history setting is switched off.
The phenomenon was first noticed by a UC Berkeley researcher whose phone requested she leave a review for a restaurant she had recently visited, even though she was under the impression she had prevented location-tracking.
She brought the issue to light in a blog post, and the cause was taken up by the Associated Press and some computer science researchers on the East Coast at Princeton.
So What’s the Score?
The assumption that by turning off location history, you prevent Google from tracking your device is a logical one. However, all disabling this setting does is prevent Google from saving your location data to the visual history you can access via your Google account homepage.
Most people aren’t too concerned that Google tracks their movements and think it’s necessary and normal for a whole range of apps to rely on knowing your location. Apps such as Tinder, Pokémon GO!, and more all provide functions which rely on your phone being able to record your movement, and most people accept it as part of the free cost for the point-of-use services.
However, what’s concerning is the lack of transparency around the issue. Unless you’re willing to trawl through Google’s expansive terms and conditions, very little information is made explicitly available about how your location is tracked and how to disable it. The fact that some apps continue to store location data, even when the appropriate option is turned off, seems dishonest and even potentially illegal.
Interestingly, if you pause location history on your Google account webpage, a popup appears, warning you some data may continue to be saved as part of your activity on services such as Google Maps and Search. That’s right. Google only makes you aware of this fact on a page you’d only witness if you had already turned the service off and only on a Google webpage.
The warning you get when turning the feature off on mobile devices is even more ambiguous. On Android, it informs you: “Places you go with your devices will stop being added to your location history map.” On the iPhone, it reads: “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in location history.”
However, while the messages are technically true, Google neglects to inform users that it simply stores the data in the My Activity section of your account instead. Technology companies, now quite commonly, engage in practices which are quite different from what their users might reasonably expect. One only need look at the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal to see the consequences this kind of behavior can have.
What Can Be Done?
First of all, it’s important for whistle-blowers to keep bringing these stories to light and making headline news of them. Only by forcing these issues into the public consciousness can the Wild West of the big tech firms be brought to task. We’ve already seen this with Mark Zuckerberg being called to testify before Congress, and we’ll likely see more stories of this ilk as we move forward.
Regarding this specific issue, if you want to truly prevent Google from storing your location data, you must disable an additional setting called Web and App Activity. The setting is switched on by default and stores a host of data relating to your activity on Google apps and websites. When disabled, any activity on any device using the same account is prevented from being saved.
The other option is to go into the history and delete the location markers manually. However, for all but the most sedentary of you, this will be a mind-numbing and time-consuming task, as you must select and delete each marker individually.
That is the latest on how to prevent Google from monitoring your every move. Whatever you do with your smartphone, only you can decide whether you are happy for Google to continue harvesting your data or would prefer it if they stopped. You should always make these decisions as informed as possible.