Experiment Unveils Google Location Tracking

John Lister's picture

Google has been tracking mobile device users movements even when they have "Location History" switched off. It turns out users need to turn off a less well-known setting to stop tracking altogether.

The issue doesn't just affect devices running Android. Some iPhones are also affected if they have Google apps such as Maps or Search running.

In theory, switching off the Location History setting on your device or in a Google account will prevent the company tracking and storing location information. The immediate effect is visible as the timeline feature in Google Maps will stop updating.

Experiment Reveals Detailed Tracking

The Associated Press (AP) discovered there was a problem with this theory and then carried out an investigation. They asked a privacy researcher to switch off Location History and then go about his normal business for a few days. Then they used the data stored on his Google account to put together a surprisingly detailed account of his movements including his commute, visits and even his home address. (Source: apnews.com)

The problem is that although this isn't technically a secret, most users aren't aware of a second setting, "Web & App Activity". As the name suggests, this keeps track of what the user does on the web and the apps they use, but there's more detail than users realize.

Many apps collect location data: sometimes for obvious reasons (such as Google Maps) and sometimes less obviously, such as search apps that check a mobile device's location and use this to make search results more relevant, for example by suggesting local stores when somebody searches for a product.

Settings Menu Confusion

It turns out that Google includes this location data in the "Web & App Activity" category and thus stores it in its user records. This is why, for example, users with "Location History" switched off may still be asked to rate and review a tourist attraction or restaurant they've visited.

Google points out that some of the information screens in the settings menus do explicitly state that it will collect "associated information, [such as] location." However, critics argue this isn't prominent enough and in any case the term Location History is misleading if it doesn't cover all location-related data. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you have Location History switched off? Were you aware this can still mean Google collects some location data? Should Google change the terminology or make settings options clearer?

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DavidInMississippi's picture

Thanks for the heads-up on this subterfuge.

However, the article would have been much more effective if you had given instructions (iPhone section, Android section) for how to disable this "feature," or at least could have pointed us to a page that tells us how to disable it.

Thanks again.

David's picture

Google has seriously strayed from their "Do no evil" motto. Directly through Android, indirectly through apps, the intent to monetize me to the fullest extent seems almost unavoidable. But Android is built off of Linux, so is there a version that can be installed on a rooted phone that can put us back in control of this pervasive and invasive tracking?

To me, there is no such thing as an acceptable 'personalized online experience'. I like it that my weather app knows where I am, so I get local weather info. But if I am searching for product info though, I don't need to know where it is sold nearby, who has it on sale, etc. - unless I ask for that information. If my physical location is in the midwest, my VPN says I'm in the southeast, and I am searching for a product by location, I'd much rather it ask for a nearby zip code than make any assumption about where I am.