Mobility

Why you can't defeat Google location tracking even if you turn it off

Google services on Android and iPhone still track users even if privacy settings instruct it not to.

Update: Google has since changed the language on its help page to address its tracking policies. Check out our sister site CNET's article for more information on the changes.

Google services store your location data even if you use a privacy setting that is supposed to prevent it from doing so, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. The findings were confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton, per the AP's request, said AP tech writer Ryan Nakashima in a post.

Typically, Google is quite transparent with asking for permission when it comes to location information. For example, users must physically allow Google Maps access to their location if they want navigation. If a user agrees to let Google Maps record their location, the app will outline their location history in a timeline, said Nakashima. Users can supposedly simply turn off Location history if they don't want their locations stored by Google.

SEE: Google Drive: Tips and tricks for business professionals (Tech Pro Research)

However, pausing Location History doesn't completely protect the user; other Google apps store location data without permission, said Nakashima. Google already snapshots the location of a user when they simply open the Maps app. Weather updates on Android leave users' locations vulnerable to tracking, and some random Google searches even save location details, explained Nakashima.

This problem impacts some two billion Android users and hundreds of millions of iPhone users across the globe who use Google maps or Search, said Nakashima. In order to stop Google from saving location markers, the company says users must turn off "Web and App Activity," which is enabled by default. Leaving this tool on and turning Location History off does not prevent Google from collecting your location, emphasized Nakashima.

"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," Princeton computer scientist Jonathan Mayer told AP. "That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have."

Many business pros rely on Google maps to get to work or navigate a new city when traveling.

By disabling location services, professionals lose that tool. But by enabling the feature, they leave their location open to being collected and stored. The issue highlights one of the key conundrums for mobile power users, who often must trade their personal data to enable key features in an app or service.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • Google still tracks users' locations even when Location History is disabled.
  • If a user wants to keep their location private, they must also disable Web and App Activity within Google.
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Image: iStockphoto/alexey_boldin

About Macy Bayern

Macy Bayern is an Associate Staff Writer for TechRepublic. A recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Macy covers tech news and trends.

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