Google is tracking your location — even when you tell it not to, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. The findings prove that many Google services on both Android and iPhones store location data regardless of whether privacy settings say otherwise. The AP’s report was originally confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton University. And now Google has acknowledged the practice.
The AP first started looking into the issue when K. Shankari, a graduate researcher from University of California, Berkeley, turned off her Location History on her Android device — but still received a notification asking to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s.
While Google does ask permission to use location information (such as requesting access for use in navigation), the issue lies within the Location History setting. Google’s support page states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored,” but the AP’s investigation found this to not be true.
The in-depth report includes a map that illustrates the commute of Gunes Acar, a Princeton privacy researcher. Even with “Location History” turned off on his Android phone, the map pinpoints exactly where he traveled and saves the data to his Google account.
Even if users “pause” Location History to keep the company from noting where they’ve been, the AP says “Google apps still automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.” AP found that pausing it doesn’t keep the company from being able to store a snapshot whenever you open Maps, or pinpoint where you are when your Android device automatically updates to give you the weather.
A quick Google search for random items on your device apparently isn’t safe from tracking either. Even though your search isn’t related to location, it still allows the device to determine your location and save it to your Google account.
In response to the findings, Google issued a statement to the AP:
“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. 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.”
The tech giant says that users can turn off another setting called “Web and App Activity,” which is enabled on your device automatically. It’s a setting that stores information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
Turning it off will prevent Google from saving location markers, along with information based on your search and activity. But the AP also notes that turning this setting off could alter how effective Google Assistant is, which could greatly affect those who rely on it often.