How to stop Google from recording your every move

Some Google apps record location data without ‘asking’ but you can counteract this

Google says you can turn off location history at any time. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Google says you can turn off location history at any time. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

 

Google keeps tracking your movements even after you have paused the “Location History” feature on your mobile device. According to an investigation carried out by the Associated Press in collaboration with computer scientists at Princeton University, other Google services on Android and iOS devices continue to keep tabs on your location.

Location History, as described by Google, saves your location to provide personalised maps, recommendations based on places you’ve visited and other related services. When Location History is on, Google states “your location is reported by your mobile device”. Conversely, when it is switched off, users might reasonably expect that their location is not reported.

Web privacy researcher Gunes Acar found that this was not the case. With Location History turned off, his location was still tracked, showing where he had travelled over the course of several days.

“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,” Princeton computer scientist Jonathan Mayer told Associated Press.

Google’s position, outlined in a statement issued to AP, is that they “provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time”.

This seems to imply the average user would understand that while Location History tracks your location, it is separate and distinct from “Web and App Activity”, which can also track your location. Ultimately, turning off Location History does not prevent tracking; it just switches off the user’s timeline, a visual mapping of past locations accessible through Google user account settings.

What can users do?

It is possible to delete past location data and prevent future location sharing but it will impact upon the quality of Google services. Right now, you can visit google.com/maps/timeline to switch off location sharing and delete previous locations if you wish.

For iPhone users, it is relatively easy to moderate Google Maps’ access by changing the location setting to “While Using” the app. But Android users are left with an all-or-nothing option; switching off location sharing essentially renders Maps useless because background tracking cannot be isolated.

If you wish to prevent all apps from knowing and/or recording your location data, it is possible to turn off Location Services within iOS settings and Location within Android settings, but this means you won’t be able to pinpoint your phone if it’s lost or stolen and neither Google nor Apple Maps will work very well.

Android devices are tied into Google apps and services more so than iPhones, but location can be toggled on and off on an app-by-app basis. All Google apps can be denied access to your location apart from Google Play services, which cannot be switched off, serving a pop-up by way of explanation, stating that it is “a provider of location services” for your device.

Wider concerns

From reports on the extent of information Facebook stores about users and the advertisers that track them through the social network to instances of companies such as Uber found tracking users without their knowledge even when they weren’t using the app, the AP/Princeton experiment raises wider concerns about what privacy rights users of mobile devices and web services can reasonably expect.

Berkeley computer science researcher K Shankari, who was the first to point out the Location History issue on her blog, said that, while she didn’t have a problem with Google or background location tracking in principle, she felt that “tracking people without their consent and without proper controls in place is creepy and wrong”.