Turning off Google location tracking may not be as simple as changing one setting to “off,” according to new research.
The unexpected Google location tracking behavior on Android and iOS devices was revealed by an Associated Press (AP) investigation and confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton University. The issue was first raised in a blog post by K. Shankari, a graduate researcher at UC Berkley, in May 2018. Shankari kept note of prompts sent by Google to rate places or submit pictures to Google Maps, even though Google Location History was turned off on her device.
The AP investigation found that even with Google location tracking turned off, certain apps will take a timestamped snapshot of the user’s location and store that data when the user performs a search, opens Google Maps, or checks the weather.
The confusion stems from the different ways users have to control Google location tracking services. The Google Location History support page claims, “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” However, when turning off the Location History setting via a user’s Google My Activity page, a pop-up notes, “This setting does not affect other location services on your device, like Google Location Services and Find My Device. Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.”
Turning off Google Location Services on a mobile device can cause apps to misbehave, so Google told the AP that the real fix for users would be to also turn off location tracking in Google’s “Web and App Activity” settings.
“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,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an email.
Tim Mackey, technology evangelist at Synopsys, said this was an issue akin to saying “if my mother can’t figure out what it does, or how to turn it off, it’s too complicated.”
“The expectation of the consumer for an off switch is what matters most. Users wish their location be kept private indicate this preference through the Location History setting. That any given application might have independent settings for location related data is how an application developer or vendor approaches the problem,” Mackey wrote via email. “When we recognize that our digital footprint is effectively a personally identifying attribute, access to that attribute becomes more valuable. This is true for malicious actors who can use location information to determine not only patterns of behavior for their targets, but know when to best commit their crime. This is also true for law enforcement seeking to identify suspects following the commission of a crime. In each of these examples, the same location and identity data can be used for good or for ill to identify an individual.”