An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data, even if you’ve used privacy settings that say they will prevent it from doing so. Computer-science researchers at Prince- ton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.
For the most part, Google is upfront about asking permission to use your location information. An app like Google Maps will remind you to allow access to location if you use it for navigating. If you agree to let it record your location over time, Google Maps will display that history for you in a “timeline” that maps out your daily movements.
Storing your minute-by-minute travels carries privacy risks and has been used by police to determine the location of suspects - such as a warrant that police in Raleigh, North Carolina, served on Google last year to find devices near a murder scene. So the company will let you “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.
For example, Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are.
The privacy issue affects some two billion users of devices that run Google’s Android operating software and hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search.
Storing location data in violation of a user’s preferences is wrong, said Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau. A researcher from Mayer’s lab confirmed the AP’s findings on multiple Android devices; the AP conducted its own tests on several iPhones that found the same behaviour.
“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,” Mayer said. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”
Google says it is being perfectly clear.
“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,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to the AP.
To stop Google from saving these location markers, the company says, users can turn off another setting, one that does not specifically reference location information. Called “Web and App Activity” and enabled by default, the setting stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account. But leaving “Web & App Activity” on and turning “Location History” off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the “timeline”, its visualisation of your daily travels. It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.
You can see the stored location markers on a page in your Google account at myactivity.google.com, although they’re typically scattered under several different headers, many of which are unrelated to location.
To demonstrate how powerful these other markers can be, the AP created a visual map of the movements of Princeton postdoctoral researcher Gunes Acar, who carried an Android phone with Location History off, and shared a record of his Google account.
The map includes Acar’s train commute on two trips to New York and visits to The High Line park, Chelsea Market, Hell’s Kitchen, Central Park and Harlem.
Critics say Google’s insistence on tracking its users’ locations stems from its drive to boost advertising revenue.
The AP learnt of the issue from K Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley, who studies the commuting patterns of volunteers in order to help urban planners. She noticed that her Android phone prompted her to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s, even though she had turned Location History off.
The AP wasn’t able to recreate Shankari’s experience exactly. But its attempts to do so revealed Google’s tracking. - AP/African News Agency(ANA)