Google Tracks Users' Location, Even When Users Explicitly Told It To Stop

People can go to one side of the world, to end the next day on the other side. Google as the largest company of the web, sees them all.

For the most part, Google is upfront about asking permission to use users' location information. What this means, users assume that turning Google's Location History option to off means that Google won't track their movements.

This is wrong, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.

It was found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store users' location data even when the users have explicitly told Google not to track them. Google continues to track them and collect location data, on a minute-by-minute basis, remembering home address, and other places they've visited throughout the day, the Associated Press reports.

To track users, AP found that Google use services like Google Maps, weather updates, and browser searches.

So what does turning off "Location History" really do? According to AP, this only stops Google from adding users' movements to its 'Timeline' feature, which visually logs where people have been.

Google - Location History
Turning off 'Location History' doesn't stop Google from tracking users' movements

Google is invasive and there is no doubt about it. The company is doing all it can to understand users, in order to deliver the best of its services to them. Some of those services apparently, contain ads, which are considered the main source of revenue for the company.

For privacy concerned individuals, Google in tracking their everyday movement is certainly displeasing. Google in continuing its tracking despite being explicitly told not to, can be regarded as a violation of privacy.

This can be made worse, especially when some two billion users use Google’s Android operating software and hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users have relied on Google Search and Google Maps.

However, according to Google, the company said that it's being perfectly clear.

"There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services," explained a Google spokesperson, responding to AP.

"We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time."

"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. As the 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."

Users do have an option to turn those invasive Google tracking off..

According to Google, users can turn off another setting, one that doesn't specifically reference location information. The feature is called 'Web and App Activity'.

When toggling off the 'Web and App Activity', which is enabled by default, Google will no longer store snapshots of where users have been from Maps data and browser searches that pinpoint their exact GPS coordinates.

As long as this feature is off, Google will stop (or pause) collecting and storing all time-stamped location data.

Google Web and App Activity
Turning on 'Web and App Activity' allows Google to collect and save users' activities for a better and more personalized experience

Users who want to remove everything that Google knows about their whereabouts, can manually delete the data by heading to 'My Activity'. Clicking on the geo-stamped entries allows users to delete the batches of entries sorted by date or web service.

But still, it's not entirely clear how these options work. The so-called 'Web and App Activity' controls how Google collects data, but there could be other means.

This can be reflected from history, when tech companies have gotten in trouble with federal authorities for confusing privacy practices. The FTC has investigated and fined several tech giants, like Facebook and Uber for misleading data practices in the past.

This isn’t the first time Google is caught tracking users' location regardless of whether they have location services turned on.

In November 2017 for example, it was reported that Android phones could still collect users' location data from nearby cell towers and send it to Google. What this means, even when toggling Location services to off or take out the SIM card, Google could still track them. Google later said it would remove the data-collecting feature by December 2017.

As for AP in doing this research, is when it learned an issue from K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley who studies the commuting patterns of volunteers in order to help urban planners. She noticed that her Android phone prompted her to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s, even though she had turned off her Android's Location History.