Google has changed the text on a support page for Location History, adding that the company still tracks their location after the feature is turned off. Previously, the clarification was only included in a confirmation pop-up message that appeared after a user attempted to turn Location History off. (A screenshot of that pop-up is below.)
Google tracks a user’s location, even when that user has turned on a setting that seemingly prevents location tracking, according to an Associated Press and Princeton University report Monday.
Many apps collect their users’ location data — and even sell it without their consent. A lot of creeped-out Google users, knowing Google’s tracking is extremely detailed, have already turned location tracking off through their Google account. What they don’t realize is that turning off the setting, called “Location History,” only stops Google from adding their whereabouts to their Google Maps Timeline (more on that below), but does not stop Google from collecting location data, according to the report. This is true for all Google users across Android and iOS.
The setting to actually turn off location tracking is called Web & App Activity.
Web & App Activity collects and stores users’ every move across Google’s products (viewable on the My Activity page through your Google account). This activity includes location information.
To truly get off Google’s radar, click the blue toggle on Web & App Activity to fully pause tracking (it’ll turn gray).
It’s important to note that once this is turned off, you’ll stop receiving personalized recommendations based on previous searches.
There you have it. Now, the confusing part is that many people already know about Google Maps Timeline, a feature that shows you where you went, as well as how and when you got there. Google gives users the option to opt out Timeline — however, this option does not disable location tracking (even though it seems like it might).
At the bottom of the Timeline web page, Google notifies you whether Location History is on or off, and invites you to manage it. On a support page describing the setting, Google says, when Location History is turned off, “the places you go are no longer stored.”
You can disable Timeline by clicking the Location History toggle. Many people stop here, but they’re missing the actual setting that will prevent location tracking: Web & App Activity.
What Google fails to clarify is that turning off your Location History means your whereabouts are no longer stored in Timeline, but the company will still collect the data anyway.
University of California, Berkeley, graduate researcher K. Shankari found that, after she turned location history off, Google Maps still knew she was shopping at Kohl's. The app asked Shankari to rate her visit at Kohl's, even though she hadn't used Google Maps to navigate there or look up the store's location.
That's because other Google apps automatically collect location data. For example, when you search something with Google Search, the app will log where you submitted the query. After attempting to pause location history, Google serves a pop-up that states, confusingly, “location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps,” with no links or guidance on how to turn off location tracking overall.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Google spokesperson said: “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.”
The information Google collects is incredibly detailed. Google not only tracks your phone’s GPS data, but also the unique MAC address (a series of numbers that’s unique to every Wi-Fi router) of every nearby Wi-Fi access point and Bluetooth beacon to help triangulate your exact location. So if you logged on to the airport Wi-Fi, for instance, Google would know where you are.
If you want to learn more about how exactly Google still tracks your location while Location History is turned off, read this report from Berkeley researcher K. Shankari.