Report: Google Tracks Users Even if They Turn Off 'Location History'

By RJ Johnson - @rickerthewriter

August 13, 2018

A new report has privacy advocates up in arms and demanding answers after an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that many Google services on both Android and iPhone devices continue to track users - even if the users set up a privacy setting that claims it will prevent Google from doing so.

The findings of the investigation were confirmed by computer-science researchers at Princeton, the AP reported. 

For the most part, Google lets you know when they begin tracking your location and provides users options to turn that off whenever they want. Google's support page says: "You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."

Except as the AP discovered, that's not true. Even if users disable Location History on their smartphone, some Google apps still automatically store time-stamped location data without letting users knowing it was doing so.

Google tracks your location whenever you use one of their services - not just when you open up something that depends on your location like the Maps app. Even when people use their smartphone to search for subjects that don't have anything to do with location, a person's Google account logs where you were when you searched for something like "Are Pine trees edible?" (It comes up more often than you'd think).

In a statement provided to the AP, Google explained their tracking policies, “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. 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.”

If you're looking to stop Google from tracking your every move, not only do you need to turn off the "Location History" setting on your phone, you also need to go into another setting called "Web and App Activity,"  (enabled by default, naturally), and pause the Google apps from tracking your location. 

The issue was first noticed by K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley who became concerned that her was tracking her after her Android phone prompted her to rate a shopping trip, despite having turned off her phone's location history. In a blog post, she said that she wasn't necessarily opposed to services like Google tracking her whereabouts in the background, but that it bothered her that they haven't explicitly stated that they're doing so. 

The privacy issue is present on the more than two billion devices that run Google's Android operating system and iPhone users who use Google for maps and searches. Google says the location data is used to target ads for ad buyers who target specific locations. 

Photo: Getty Images

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