Death and taxes are two of the most famous certainties in life, but surely we can add another to that list. One involving the absolute nature of Google’s all-seeing eye, and the comprehensive scope of everything it wants to know about you.
File this under “shouldn’t surprise anyone,” but the Associated Press has released the findings of an investigation that studied the way Google services on both Android devices and iPhones handle your location data. The creepy takeaway: Many of Google’s services on both devices “store your location data even if you’ve used privacy settings that say they will prevent it from doing so.”
Computer science researchers at Princeton looked over the AP’s findings at its request and confirmed the results. Here’s a closer look at what the investigation found:
“Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app,” the AP reported about its findings. “Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like ‘chocolate chip cookies,’ or ‘kids science kits,’ pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude — accurate to the square foot — and save it to your Google account.”
To illustrate how much of a peek into your daily life Google’s tracking can provide, the AP created a visual map of the movements of Princeton researcher Gunes Acar. He shared a record of his Google account, carried an Android phone with him and turned location history off.
The AP was able to put together a map showing Acar’s train ride on two trips to New York and visits to locations including Hell’s Kitchen, Central Park and Harlem.
The AP got interested in taking a look at this issue in the first place after hearing about it from K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley. She’d noticed a prompt on her Android phone asking her to rate a trip to Kohl’s, even though her location history was turned off. Naturally, she wondered how Google Maps knew she’d made the trip.
Language in popups often doesn’t help clear up confusion about what Google tracks or doesn’t. There’s a relevant popup on the iPhone, for example, that reads: “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.”
According to the AP, that text is technically true but somewhat misleading. If you turn Location History off, Google Maps and other apps can store your whereabouts in a section of your account called “My Activity” instead.
“Google offers a more accurate description of how Location History actually works in a place you’d only see if you turn it off — a popup that appears when you ‘pause’ Location History on your Google account webpage,” the AP reports. “There the company notes that ‘some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.’
“Google offers additional information in a popup that appears if you re-activate the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting — an uncommon action for many users, since this setting is on by default. That popup states that, when active, the setting ‘saves the things you do on Google sites, apps, and services … and associated information, like location.’
This issue about location tracking is a significant one, of course, since it affects a few billion people. That’s the two billion or so who use Android devices plus the hundreds of millions of iPhone users running Google map and search apps.
Google provided a statement to the AP that reads: “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. 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.”