How Google tracks your location, and how you can prevent it from doing so

It is sad how Google has breached user trust and privacy by not making its position clear.

“Every move you make…
every step you take
I'll be watching you”
-Love,
Google

On 2 August I left my home at 8.56 am, took a cab and reached work at 10.19 am. I do not keep track of my schedule this accurately, but besides noticing the amount of time it takes me to reach my workplace, which is just two kilometers away from my house, I am surprised by how Google has a pretty accurate account of my life, and it has been keeping it for almost all of us. The feature was introduced in 2015, as "a way to easily remember all the places you’ve been."

Check it out, if you haven’t in the past. Unlock your phone, open the Google Maps app, if you do not have the app installed, open it on your web browser and log in. Click on the triple-striped ‘hamburger’ icon on the left, and then tap on ‘Your timeline.’ Upon doing this, you will see your whereabouts from the current day – nearly accurate details about where you were at what time and for how long; the travel time between two locations; and if you were driving or walking or flying. You can navigate to different dates from the calendar menu on the right.

Representational Image

Representational Image

Now, I know this is not new information, that Google has a lot of our data, which it acquires from our use of its services. But, it was only this week that we learnt that Google does this tracking even when we believe that we've disabled the option for Google to do so.

News agency The Associated Press published an exclusive report on 13 August revealing the same, which was also confirmed by computer-science researchers at Princeton, on the publication’s request.

Later, a change on Google’s help page was noticed on 17 August. The support page earlier read that “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

However, after the investigation, the company's Location History settings information on the help page now says that the “setting does not affect other location services on your device.” It further acknowledges that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.”

You can view the older help page in an image posted in an internet archive snapshot on web.archive.org here.

While some users may find location tracking useful, it can also be incredibly invasive. Many questions arise – how does Google track our location and store data; why does it do so; why is it a problem and how can we prevent it from doing so? Here are some of them answered.

How and why does Google track our location?

When we use services by Google, a deal is implicit and trust it with our data. When we Google something, get directions on Google Maps or watch a video on YouTube, Google collects data to make these services “work” for us, which means that it uses it for advertising purposes. Our device information, our IP address and cookie data are other means through which Google collects data.

Google Maps.

Google Maps.

Also, those who use Google's voice search, have their searches stored as well.

While tracking its users’ locations and storing data originates from Google’s motive of boosting revenue from advertising specifically, it is upsetting that Google has lied to us about its data collecting practices.

Why is Google’s location tracking a problem?

According to researchers, things like weather updates and even searches for things unrelated to location are being handed to Google without our permission.

“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,” said Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist to The Associated Press. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have,” he added.

Advocates of privacy do not appreciate this. Especially because Google has breached user trust and privacy by not making its position clear.

Further, the cookies that are used for advertisements and search preferences are also capable of tracking us for surveillance purposes. Our personal information that is gathered by Google for some commercial purposes also serves as a strong tool for surveillance. For example, the Washington Post in 2013 revealed that Google cookies, known as ‘PREF’ cookies, can uniquely identify us and that the intelligence agency of the United States Department of Defense, the NSA (National Security Agency) had been using this to “enable remote exploitation” – that is, hacking into people’s computers.

How can you delete your past data?

It is already clear that even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without our permission. Thankfully, it is possible to delete this data.

You can head to myactivity.google.com, and upon signing in, go to ‘Activity Controls’ in the drop-down menu. Here, you will have the option to turn off “Web & App Activity” and “Location History.” This step will prevent precise location tracking by Google. However, through the process, you will be warned by Google that some of its services won’t work after you turn these settings off, like Google Assistant and Google Home.

Head here for a detailed report on how to delete your past data on Android and iOS devices, as Google continues to passively track your movements.

How can you prevent Google from saving your location data?

There is no simple way to prevent yourself from being tracked. By simply connecting to the internet on any device, your IP address can be easily geographically mapped. Further, since smartphones also connect to cell towers, your carrier knows your general location at all times.

To get a good sense how much Google knows about you, check out its ad settings page. Here you will be able to see a profile that Google has built of you. The list is rather revealing and includes attributes such as your age group, gender, your preferences, such as information on your interest in basketball or gardening, and a lot more besides.

Interesting or creepy? Whatever it is that you feel, you do have an option here to turn it off. Once ad personalisation is turned off, you will not be surprised by ads that appear on the basis of your last search.

Further, check out Google's Dashboard, where can view all of your data that is stored by Google, and even download it. If you are unhappy, you can go ahead and delete yourself from Google completely. It's not clear if Google will, however, let go of your data completely.

While these are a couple of options that we could gather, there is also another way. Delete your digital selves from the internet completely. And there are ways to do that. For example, Deseat.me, is a program that lets people create a list of the live accounts that they have, and finally, have themselves forgotten by the internet universe. Account Killer and Just Delete Me are other such options.

A Digital Detox?

If you're overwhelmed by all this and are considering moving away from social media, which is turning out to be a total buzz kill, watch this video and get started with your digital detox.





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