Google tracks your location whether you like it or not

google maps location
Image credit: BoxerX / Shutterstock.com

Most people know by now that Google can track not only your online activity, but also your physical location via Google Maps. It’s also reasonably well-known that users can opt out of being tracked via their privacy settings. What’s less known – until now – is that even if you opt out, Google will track your location anyway.

An investigative piece by Associated Press – which followed up on a blog post by a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley – found that a number of Google apps store location data even if users activate privacy settings telling Google not to do that.

To be sure, Google apps and services typically ask users up front for permission to collect data. The problem is when users deny Google that permission, or grant it and then change their minds later. For example, for users concerned about the ability of Google Maps to remember their locations, Google enables them to “pause” a setting called Location History:

Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

That isn’t true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

That’s because Location History isn’t the only tool Google uses to collect location markers. Essentially you have to go in turn them all off – and while Google told AP that it provides “clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time”, it’s not exactly intuitive for the average user whose tech savviness may not be on par with the average Google employee:

Warnings when you’re about to turn Location History off via Android and iPhone device settings are more difficult to interpret. On Android, the popup explains that “places you go with your devices will stop being added to your Location History map.” On the iPhone, it simply reads, “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.”

The iPhone text is technically true if potentially misleading. With Location History off, Google Maps and other apps store your whereabouts in a section of your account called “My Activity,” not “Location History.”

For those of us who do keep up with technology, the report isn’t that surprising. We’ve known for years and years that Google’s entire business model is predicated on collecting user data on behalf of its advertising customers. Location data is extremely valuable to those customers, and Google knows that – last month, for example, it launched a new tool called Local Campaigns that measures in-store foot traffic using user location data to deliver relevant ads while the user is in the store.

Also, as security expert Bruce Schneier points out on his blog, Google isn’t the only company doing this:

Google is a symptom of the bigger problem: surveillance capitalism in general. As long as surveillance is the business model of the Internet, things like this are inevitable.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It’s a problem for users precisely because opting out is more labyrinthine a process than it ought to be. And that’s a problem because – as Arwa Mahdawi points out in The Guardian –Google, Facebook and pretty much every other digital service does this, and none of them have any business incentive to change their ways short of government regulation. Indeed, it took the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and subsequent government grillings – just to get Mark Zuckerberg to admit that okay, maybe we should look at doing this differently.

No wonder a recent survey found consumers trust telcos more than digital giants with their data. We’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating – as the Googles and Facebooks of the earth continue to get caught up in data privacy shenanigans, service providers of all stripes who are keen on the promise of big data analytics, machine learning, etc, should be taking notes and going out of their way to not only capitalize on these breaches of trust, but also ensure that they do not make the same mistakes.

Google’s motto (until recently) was: “Don’t be evil”. Perhaps the motto for telcos – at least as far as big data goes – should be: “Don’t be Google”.

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