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Location Tracking Turned Off?

Google is Still Tracking You

Published by Claire Broadley

On Android and iPhone, Google has been logging location data from users, even after location tracking is turned off.

The primary culprits are Google apps, like Maps, which appear to ignore the location services setting on your phone and log your location anyway.

If you’re privacy conscious, Google’s over-zealous location tracking will rightly set off alarm bells. For example, if your kids use smartphones, you as a parent should be able to trust Google not to track where they are as a matter of principle and safety. But Google logs location data in a web-accessible map, and that information could potentially be accessed if someone gained access to their account.

Some people just aren’t comfortable with technology companies tracking their every move -- a legitimate viewpoint, and a choice that Google should respect. So what’s gone wrong?

What Does Google Log When Location Tracking is Off?

This location tracking issue affects all Android phones, as well as iPhones that are used with Google’s apps.

According to the Guardian, who reported the Associated Press story, two Google apps are highlighted as being problematic.

Google Maps pings your phone to find out where you are when you open it -- which is logical for a mapping app. But crucially, Google also stores that location, which you may not expect if you’ve switched off tracking.

Google’s weather services also find out where you are in order to send accurate local weather to your phone. Again, the ping that they send out returns a tracked location to its servers.

Researchers found that it’s not just apps either. Google web searches can trigger location tracking, and they don’t necessarily have to be linked to a location to do that.

Google has now updated its policies to accurately reflect what’s going on.

Turning off Location History for Good

In order to turn off all location tracking, simply turning off location services on your device won’t stop it. You will also need to turn off a specific Google setting called Web and App Activity, which will probably be turned on by default. (If you use a G Suite account, it may be off already.)

You can also delete the markers manually, although few people would have the time to trawl through Google’s vast collection of data and figure out where they all are.

Finding the Balance

Whether you use Google’s phones, its apps, its search engine, or its voice assistant Google Home, the company collects tons of data by default. At My Activity, you’ll see a huge archive of your web searches, location markers, Gmail searches, Android app usage, YouTube likes and comments, voice searches, and more.

This is, in part, how Google monetises you as a user; it learns your preferences and interests, and then shows you relevant advertising. Some of the data that it collects is also used to train its systems, including voice recordings collected from Google Assistant.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to opt out of all of this data collection unless you’re willing to use a different provider. That may mean you have to pay for the same services that Google’s currently giving you free.

But despite that, Google shouldn’t be sneakily tracking users’ location if they’ve specifically turned the feature off. As a user, you still have the right to privacy, even if you have nothing to hide.