Published in Mobiles

Switching off location data on smartphones makes no difference

by on14 August 2018

Google can still spy

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if users think they have switched it off.

Google says that you can turn off Location History at any time and when you do the places you go are no longer stored.

However it looks like even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like “chocolate chip cookies” or “kids science kits” pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude — accurate to the square foot — and save it to your Google account.

It is not the only one - iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search are also affected.

A researcher from Mayer’s lab confirmed the AP’s findings on multiple Android devices; the AP conducted its own tests on several iPhones that found the same behavior.

Google claims that if users want total anonymity they can turn off another setting, one that does not specifically reference location information. Called “Web and App Activity” and enabled by default, that setting stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.

When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account. But leaving “Web & App Activity” on and turning “Location History” off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the “timeline,” its visualization of your daily travels. It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.

You can delete these location markers by hand, but it’s a painstaking process since you have to select them individually, unless you want to delete all of your stored activity.

On an iPhone with Location History off, Google Maps and other apps store your whereabouts in a section of your account called “My Activity” not “Location History”.

Sean O’Brien, a Yale Privacy Lab researcher with whom the AP shared its findings, said it is “disingenuous” for Google to continuously record these locations even when users disable Location History. “To me, it’s something people should know”, he said.

Last modified on 14 August 2018
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