Google will track you even when you’ve told it not to

Google is morphing into the helicopter parent we’d always feared it would; its location tracking persists even when users have explicitly told it not to, discovers AP News. In a move that harks back to Black Mirror’s Arkangel, Alphabet’s child company is defying its customers’ wishes and monitoring their whereabouts, even when unsuspecting users have explicitly requested that it doesn’t.

Read on to discover why Google tracks its users even when it’s been denied permission to do so, and how this insidious practice went under the radar for so long.

How Google is always tracking you: What you allow Google to see

If you’ve ever used an Android device or a Google app, you’ll be well acquainted with the search engine giant requesting permission to access your location information. I, for example, frequent Google Maps, and had to sanction its usage of my location for navigation purposes. This, I acquiesced, was a necessary evil – I’d surrender my data for free access to efficient routes around London.

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If you do consent to your location being mapped, Google will create a “timeline” of your daily movements. A little creepy – and incriminating – but hell, if you’ve sanctioned it, who cares, right?

Plus, the company lets you “pause” the Location History setting, meaning your whereabouts aren’t being charted by the company when you eventually decide to lay down the law…

How Google is always tracking you: Google’s hidden tracking systems

…except that they are. Google feigns innocence, maintaining that: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

This isn’t a barefaced lie; your location data isn’t stored in Location History. It is, however, stored in a section of your account called My Activity. So you’re still being tracked.

When you “pause” Location History, some Google apps will still log your time-stamped location data, and it’s all very hush-hush. This is in spite of the fact that you’ve previously asked Google not to track your location.

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This dubious privacy infringement affects some two billion Android users worldwide, in addition to hundreds of millions of iOS users who rely on Google Maps or its search engine. And if you think you’re too canny to have been affected, you’re probably wrong; Google creates a snapshot of your location when you so much as open Maps. Seemingly innocuous searches – AP News highlights “chocolate chip cookies” as a laughably innocent example – will pinpoint your whereabouts (“accurate to the square foot”) which will then be logged by your account.

How Google is always tracking you: How Google was caught out

The issue was first brought to attention by K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley. Shankari, who studies commuting patterns, was left scratching her head when she was asked to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s, despite having switched off her Location History when the trip took place.

Understandably, Shankari had a lot of questions. “When did I agree to this?”; “How does Maps get the location?”; “How does Maps convert the location to a business name?” came a few of her questions on a Berkeley blog post.

Turns out, in order for Google to stop saving location markers full-stop, users must turn off another setting called “Web and App Activity”. This is enabled by default, and stored a wealth of information from Google apps, websites and accounts. Only when you turn this off will Google’s snooping ways be put to an end – turn off Location History alone and all the search engine giant will do is stop adding your movements to its “timeline”.

As for Shankari, she’s most indignant about the opacity of the whole system; “I am not opposed to background location tracking in principle,” she clarified. “It just really bothers me that it is not explicitly stated.” Hear, hear.

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How Google is always tracking you: What Google has to gain from location tracking

While integrity’s all well and good, Google’s got something a bit more lucrative in mind – ad revenue. Senior geospatial analyst Peter Lenz, who works at rival ad tech company Dstillery, takes a pretty blunt view of things; speaking to AP News he opined, “They build advertising information out of data […] More data for them presumably means more profit”.

The news comes at a time when tech companies are in hot water for their mishandling, misappropriation and misbehaviour when it comes to personal data. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was recently held to account by the US Congress regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Last year saw 31 million Android users’ personal data exposed due to an insecure keyboard app. And as recently as last month, Dixons Carphone revealed a data breach had affected ten million customers.

Now, more than ever, we need to be wary about what data of ours is shared, and when, and to whom.

Images: Matthias Ripp, used under Creative Commons 

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