Probe Finds Google Tracks Your Location Even When You Tell It to Stop

NEWS ANALYSIS: An investigation by the Associated Press and Princeton University reveals that Google location tracking continues even when you turn it off and stopping it is difficult.

By now, if you didn’t know that Google is tracking your movements, you at least suspected it. Google makes a vast amount of its already enormous revenue by knowing and retaining as much information as possible about as many people as possible. 

This information includes your whereabouts, your travel, and how your travels intersect with other activities, including ads you’re sent from its advertising subsidiaries. 

One of the ways that Google makes money is by knowing whether you’ve reacted to an ad, either by your online activity or by where you go. For example, the company wants to know if you’re going to Home Depot in a response to an ad served for the home improvement store. If it looks like you are, then Google can charge more for such ads. 

But you also probably thought that you could turn this off in your privacy settings. On the iPhone, for example, you can select a setting in which location information is only available while using an app, or perhaps not at all. However, according to the investigation by the AP, some Google apps are still storing detailed location information in your location history, even when you’ve changed the privacy settings to bar location tracking. 

According to the AP investigation, location markers are stored in a setting called “Web and App Activity” which is in a separate area from its “Location History” settings. You can find this in your online Google account, meaning that it’s not on your device. Instead, you have to go to your account on Google, and find it there. Once you find it, you can delete the markers of your activity individually. 

But even that doesn’t stop all location tracking. Some apps, such as Google Maps, will still continue to track your location and save it to app specific locations in your Google account. Fortunately, as I found out this past week, there are ways to keep this from happening. 

Just for background, I spent last week on vacation, which included a cruise to Havana, Cuba, the Bahamas and included a transit of the once-dreaded Sargasso Sea, which is part of the still-dreaded Bermuda Triangle. Nothing that Google records had any record of these travels. As far as Google was concerned, I had simply vanished. 

What had happened boils down to economics. While you can get WiFi and cell service on a cruise ship, it’s insanely expensive, so while I was on the ship, I kept WiFi turned off and I didn’t call anyone. In Cuba, cell service is available, but it’s almost as expensive as on the ship, so I didn’t call anyone there, and in both cases I had data roaming turned off. 

Because there was no means for Google apps to report their location, Google had no idea where I was. So my location history is simply blank. Likewise, my app history is also blank. 

However, for most people, keeping everything turned off like that is out of the question. You need your cellular data turned on for a variety of reasons and you like the fact that Google can find a barbecue joint near you because it already knows where you are. It doesn’t occur to most people that there is a connection between using location-based search and keeping a record of where you were 

Google does offer the ability to turn this location tracking off. To accomplish this, you need sign in to your Google account and go to https://myactivity.google.com. From there you can see everything you’ve done using a Google app or Google services. While you’re there, you can download everything Google has on you, but it might take a while. 

For its part, Google doesn’t deny that it’s storing your location information. “Location History is a Google product that is entirely opt in, and users have the controls to edit, delete, or turn it off at any time,” a Google spokesperson told eWEEK in an email. 

“As the [AP] story notes, we make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience when they do things like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions.” 

You can turn that off too, so that Google search won’t know where you are. If you do, and you want to find things based on your location, you’ll either have to enable location tracking while the search happens, or you’ll have to tell Google where you are, which is what tends to happen to me since I keep location services mostly turned off. 

Whether Google’s tracking of your location is a security problem for you depends on your specific circumstances. While it certainly does raise privacy questions, the security implications are less clear. But there are times when knowing your CEO’s location, such as when a meeting with another CEO, might not be ideal. 

With Android phones, turning off the ability to track your location can be fairly complex, and you’ll need to look in several areas in your Google account to make sure everything is turned off. On an iPhone, you can solve the problem by deleting Google Maps and related apps. Or you can set individual privacy settings for anything that uses Google services. 

On a corporate basis, you’ll need to determine whether the security risk means that you’ll need to set a standard addressing location services. 

While it is possible to defeat Google’s location tracking, it would be helpful if the company were more upfront about what it’s doing and why. But that information is available if you know where to look and you’ll find it while you’re looking at your online activities.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...