If you’ve ever suspected that Google is watching your every move even when you explicitly tell it not to, a new investigation has vindicated your suspicions by proving just that.
An investigation carried out by the Associated Press has found that Google is in fact storing Android and iPhone users’ location data even when they have chosen privacy settings to prevent the company from doing so.
Google claims that if you turn off the ‘Location History’ setting on your device, the company will not be able to store information about where you have been. The company states on its support page, that you can turn off Location History “at any time” and that, with the setting turned off, “the places you go are no longer stored.”
But that’s not true, the AP report says, because some Google apps continue to store time-stamped location data even when the ‘Location History’ setting is switched off – without asking for permission.
Some of the examples given by the AP include the Google Maps app, which takes a snapshot of your location as soon as you open it and even completely unrelated searches like “chocolate chip cookies” which “pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude” and save it to your Google account.
The AP looked into the issue after K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley, blogged about how her Android device had prompted her to rate a recent shopping trip to Kohl’s even though her location history had been turned off.
Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist, told the AP that Google’s privacy settings should be made clearer. “If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off,” he said. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”
Google, however, says it has been clear. A spokesperson for the company said that it provides “clear descriptions” of all the Google tools that people use which may record users’ locations.
To prevent Google from saving location data from all of those tools, the company said users can turn off a setting called ‘Web and App Activity’ – but since this setting is turned on by default, many people don’t know about it and assume that when they turn ‘Location History’ off, it will be off across all of their apps.
Users can delete stored location markers by hand, but each one has to be selected and deleted individually – unless you want to delete all of your stored activity – making it a time-consuming process.
Google does offer a less misleading description of how its location storing works but only in a popup window if you select to ‘pause’ ‘Location History’ on your Google account web page, where it states that some location data may still be saved as part of your activity on other Google apps.
Peter Lenz, a senior geospatial analyst at advertising technology company Dstillery said that Google’s obsession with tracking user locations is all to do with advertising revenue. “They build advertising information out of data,” he said. “More data for them presumably means more profit.”
The AP’s findings were confirmed by computer-science researchers at Princeton University.