Just by turning off your Location History in your Google account does not mean you have successfully barred Google from tracking you. Do technology listen to our commands? Not really. Sometimes, they are programmed not to. If you are the type do who doesn’t mind a piece of application tracking your movement, you can move to some other topic. But if you are kind of person who takes privacy dead serious, then this could be worth your time.
A recent research carried out by a group of Princeton University experts (on the request of Associated Press (AP)) said that Google is more interested in knowing about your whereabouts despite you prevent Google from doing so.
It is shocking (or not so shocking considering today’s privacy scenario) to learn that even after you disable the Location History, Google behaves like a stubborn, heedless child who does exactly what you told not to do.
Despite disabling your ‘Location History’ Google can still track your movement every time you open Google Maps, gather automatic weather updates, or do your usual search through your browser. Google Map stores a snapshot of your present location every time you open it. Weather updates requires your current location to ‘serve you better’. The search you perform, even the ones that has nothing to do with location, saves your latitude and longitude into your Google account.
Associated Press pointed out that this behaviour could affect over two billion Android devices, which runs on Google’s Android operating system, and millions of iPhone users who regularly use Google Maps and Google browser for searching.
Location History is turned off, Google can still track you
Google says that once you turn off the Location History, “the places you go are no longer stored. When you turn off the location history for your Google Account, its off for all devices associated with that Google Account”. However, the AP investigation found that to be untrue.
The AP researchers and the Princeton University experts decided to test it on themselves. Gunes Acar, a Princeton researcher, turned off the Location History on his phone before he travelled. On the other end, AP was able to easily track Acar’s home address and his daily travel activities.
What was happening here was that everytime you turn off your Location History, Google only stopped from creating a timeline of your location, but, some Google apps were still able to automatically store time-stamped location details without asking the user. This is exactly what lawmakers and users consider to be a pure violation.
But Google does offer a method to actually turn off the location tracking feature. Unfortunately, the procedure is hidden somewhere in a tab called “Web and App Activity”, which many common users are not aware of.
What strikes strange, and a troubling question prodding us is, why Google have to keep this information in ‘Web and App activity’ (which is not directly referring to location) instead of having them in ‘Location History’?
If you look deep into it, there are two things that comes out as bit fishy, or at least that’s what AP researchers believe.
First, the older version of Google Support page stated:
“You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”
Actually it stored.
After all the hullabaloo this issue had created, Google quickly rephrased their explanation. The new Account Help Page says this:
Second, still nowhere does it mention that if users want to turn off or pause location tracking they need to head to ‘Web & App Activity’.
It seems (as of now) Google does have a clear answer to this question.
Here’s how you can stop Google from tracking you
Though you can turn off the location markers by hand, not many people prefer to do that as it is a painstaking and time-consuming process.
Here’s how you can head to Web and Activity App and turn off the location tracking.
On your browser
Sign in to your Google Account. You can find this in the drop down on the upper right corner.
Once you log in, go to Personal Info & Privacy
Click on Go to my activity
On the left hand side list, click on Activity Controls
Once you are inside this page, you can see Web & App Activity with a toggle button beside it.
On Android phone
Go to Google settings
Tap on Google
Go to Google Account – Info security and personalization
Tap on Data & Personalization
You’ll find Web & App Activity (it sits right above the Location History option) with a description “Saves your activity on Google sites and Apps to give faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalised experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services”
In the Web & App Activity toggle the blue button to off
Once you put it to off, Google is quick in launching in a pop-up warning that says: “Pausing Web & App Activity may limit or disable more personalised experiences across Google services. For example, you may stop seeing more relevant search results or recommendations about places you care about. Even when this setting is paused, Google may temporarily use information from recent searches in order to improve the quality of the active search session.”
Practices like storing location data without the user’s consent is becoming a norm, and mega corporations like Google have their ‘ready-to-serve-if-needed’ subtle, official retorts. Google’s usual reply is that they track users location details to “improve user experience”. However, several lawmakers and privacy supporters are not entirely convinced.
Several critics point out that top companies involve in these data practices to boost their advertising revenue. This might be true. Revenue from advertising is big and lucrative, especially when it comes to data.
So, what we users can do about it?
There is nothing much we do than look deeper into what we are being told and what is happening.