A new report has emerged on the internet stating that Google is not being upfront about how it is tracking the location of the internet users who use Google apps and services. According to an extensive report by the Associated Press (AP), it was revealed that Google is still tracking the activities and location of its users even if they have turned the “Location History” option off on their smartphones. The report went on to state that this problem was first reported by a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley, K Shankari who is studying the commuting patterns of volunteers so that she can help urban planners.
According to her account, she stated that her Android smartphone asked her to rate a shopping trip to Kohl even after she had turned off the “Location History” off on her device. AP took a note of that and started its investigation concluding that a number of Google services on Android and iOS devices store the location data of a user even after the user has enabled a privacy setting that states that it will stop Google from collecting the location data. The report pointed out that computer-science researchers from Princeton confirmed AP’s investigation results.
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The problematic part here is that even though Google is explicit in asking about permissions for the location information if the user is using Google Maps. The app will even remind users that it needs access to the location data of the user along with a notification in the notification panel while adding all this information to the “timeline” or a user.
For the uninitiated, “Timeline” is a visual representation of the daily movements of a user if they have allowed Google to collect their location data. However, it looks like the explicit permissions don’t really matter and the company continues to collect the location data even after the user has “paused” the collection with the help of “Location History setting. The report goes on to state that Google support page adds, “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” This is pretty clear in what it states but regardless, apps like Google Maps, or daily Weather updates continue to store “time-stamped location data.”
The report pointed out that about two billion Android smartphone users and “hundreds of millions of” iPhone users who depend on Google Maps for navigation are affected by this privacy issue. Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist at Princeton and former Chief Technologist at the FCC’s enforcement bureau stated that it is wrong adding, “If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off.”
However, Google issued a response to the report adding that “it is being perfectly clear” stating, “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.” The company also adds that “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.”
Google also adds that users should turn off “Web and App Activity” to stop Google from saving location markers”. But here is the thing Google, where is the world “location” really mentioned in the setting. The report added that the turning off this setting will stop the company from collecting your collection data but turning it off while turning the “Location History” off will only stop the company from putting your location data on the “Timeline”. The company is still collecting the location data and one can access this information on myactivity.google.com. The report points out that it is possible to delete your location data but it is a lengthy task.
The report also added that Google does “provide a more accurate description of how Location History works” through a popup message when users pause the “Location History” on Google account page stating “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.” The company also shows a similar message when a user turns off “Web & App Activity” setting but these warnings are difficult to interpret when a user is turning these settings off on their Android or iPhone devices.