Every move you make, every step you take, is Google watching you?

14 Aug 2018

Android smartphone. Image: Worawee Meepian/Shutterstock

Investigation alleges that Google apps on Android and iPhone devices automatically store timestamped location data even when the Location History setting is paused.

A feature in Google apps such as Maps on Android or iPhone devices that lets users ‘pause’ their Location History may still be logging users’ moves.

That’s a claim that has emerged from an investigation by Princeton researchers on behalf of Associated Press (AP).

Hold on a minute, I specifically told my Google apps not to log my movements?

The researchers allege that even if you disable Location History, Google still tracks you every time you open Google Maps, get automatic weather updates or search for things in your browser.

According to Google’s support page for managing and deleting your Location History, “places you go are no longer stored” and once you turn it off in your Google account, it is off for all devices associated with your account.

However, the AP and Princeton investigation challenges this and posits that turning off Location History only stops Google from creating a timeline of your location and that some apps will still track you and store timestamped information.

How do I stop a timeline of my movements being created?

The only way to get it to stop tracking you is by digging through your settings to turn off Web & App Activity and this prevents Google from storing a snapshot of where you have been.

Leaving Web & App Activity on and turning Location History off only prevents the internet giant from adding your movements to the timeline, a visualisation of your daily movements. Otherwise, you’ll have to delete location markers by hand, which is a painstaking job.

Location markers are usually stored in your account at myactivity.google.com.

At a time when people’s hackles over privacy have reached an all-time high following the recently exposed Cambridge Analytica affair involving Facebook, the ramifications could be considerable when you consider 2bn people worldwide carry Android devices.

Indeed. And what is Google saying about this?

“There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including Location History, Web & App Activity and through device-level Location Services,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement reported by AP.

“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.”

This is all a bit technical and I just want to use my phone the way I want to use it. What could possibly go wrong?

It really depends on much you value your privacy and how much advertising you want Google to channel in your direction.

K Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley who studies the patterns of commuters to help urban planners, discovered that her Android phone prompted her to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s even though she had turned Location History off.

A Princeton researcher, Günes Acar, turned Location History off and travelled twice across new York, and AP was able to create a visual map of his movements.

Why would Google want to store my location data?

Advertising. The more Google knows about you, the more advertising it can sell. Also, advertisers like to know about the effectiveness of their advertising, and driving foot traffic is a real tool in this regard.

According to AP, Google is pushing further into location-aware tracking to drive ad revenue, which rose 20pc last year to $95.4bn.

A new feature called Local Campaigns dynamically uses ads to boost in-person store visits and can tell an advertiser how effective advertising has been at driving footfall into a premises.

So, Google does not make it possible to turn off the ability to track your every move?

True. The problem is the ambiguous way in which these capabilities are being presented. Users are thinking they’ve turned off tracking when they have not. And that’s the rub of the issue.

On the iPhone, Google tells users: “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.”

On Android devices, it says: “Places you go with your devices will stop being added to your Location History map.”

All true, but the paucity of information regarding your control over whether an accurate picture or timeline of your movements is still being recorded in Web & App Activity could be a concern.

Android smartphone. Image: Worawee Meepian/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years