Is Google tracking you even with location history turned off?

Posted by Owen Powis on 21 Aug, 2018
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A story that really started last November may soon be coming to a dramatic finale as Google have a class action lawsuit taken out against them.

Google doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to user privacy. However it’s also a massive entity and Alphabet offers services which cover many times what a normal business does. So this means they are likely to come across these issues as an entity more often than a smaller organisation would. Especially when they are trying to tie together the different services.

Using their services ultimately is a compromise, between the data we are willing to hand over and the usefulness of what we get back. Remember, if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.

Google does however get back quite a lot from its services with profits in the first quarter of $9.4 billion. So at more than $3 billion profit per month, it’s arguable they could afford us a little more privacy.

The latest controversy started picking up speed last November when Quartz reported that Google was collecting Android users' location data even when location data was turned off .

“Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google.”

The cell phone tower data can be used to triangualte a user's position and Google stated this was used as part of the information sent to the system which manages push notifications and messages.

“The cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months, according to a Google spokesperson. They were never used or stored, the spokesperson said, and the company is now taking steps to end the practice after being contacted by Quartz. By the end of November, the company said, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable.”

This might also explain why I always used to get a push notification whenever I went past my local train station with the departure times on it even though I had double checked location services were turned off in Google maps and my Google account. So it’s interesting to see there may have been a reason why this was happening. Of course this is my personal experience and may be down to my fat thumbs or other inability to properly operate my phone. Saying that, I’m not the only one to have a similar experience…

"I had Google Location History turned off, and the other examples on Google’s Privacy Policy appeared to only cover location tracking while using Google Maps. I clearly wasn’t using Google Maps to navigate the racks at Kohl’s, and I hadn’t even used it to get there. So how did Google Maps know where I was?"

What’s happening now?

The latest development started on August 13th when Associated Press published an article revealing that Google still track and store your location data even after you’ve told it not to.

“Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: 'You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.' ”,-like-it-or-no

That isn’t true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

This isn’t just a few obscure apps either, it’s some of the most commonly used ones…

“For example, 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.",-like-it-or-no

So why do they want this data?

Find more statistics at Statista.

Google makes most of its money from advertising. Around 87% of revenue comes from advertising and it needs to ensure it stays at the top of the pile. Location based data is incredibly powerful and provides a key part of programmatic advertising.

“Target your ads to people in—or who've shown interest in—geographic locations relevant to where you do business. You can select whether you’d like your ad to appear for someone’s physical location, locations of interest, or both. Location targeting can help you make sure your ads are relevant to the people who see them—which can help boost your campaign's value.”

The lawsuit

The very latest development comes from Napoleon Patacsil from San Diego who has filed a class action lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit states:

“Google expressly represented to users of its operating system and apps that the activation of certain settings will prevent the tracking of users’ geolocations. This representation was false. Despite users’ attempts to protect their location privacy, Google collects and stores users’ location data, thereby invading users’ reasonable expectations of privacy, counter to Google’s own representations about how users can configure Google’s products to prevent such egregious privacy violations.”

We’ll have to wait and see what a judge makes of it and what further action, if any, Google decides to take on the matter. In the meantime, I can’t help thinking it would just be nice if I could have both a phone and my privacy.

So have you noticed location based Google notifications or behaviour happening on your phone when you have location based services turned off? Please do add your thoughts in the comments.

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