Does Google know where you’re going?

Published 3:00 am Saturday, August 18, 2018

Google is popular.  When your product or company name becomes synonymous with its offering and is introduced as a verb, you’ve really made an impression. I recall people referring to all tissues as Kleenex, “Give me a Kleenex, please.”  Or, in the South, “I’ll take a Coke.”  What kind? “Mountain Dew.”

And so we have Google: “Google that question, Google the weather, Google the name of that song.” Most of us hear about Google every day.

That’s very impressive. Google seems to be everywhere, and everywhere you go, Google has interest.

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Why? Most will agree that Google – more specifically, Alphabet Inc. – is interested in our locations for two reasons: targeted advertising and improvement of services, services in which location is strategic.

When Google auto-completes your search inquiry with near perfection, does it surprise? When Google news presents articles that interest you, does it surprise you? When Google Maps suggests an alternate route due to heavy traffic congestion, does it surprise you?

No, most don’t mind; in fact, the efforts are very cool and impressive. Who wouldn’t want to know about bad traffic before you encounter it? Why wouldn’t you want to know if your favorite restaurant is currently busy?

Google Android devices are used by over 2 billion users. Google apps are used by millions of Apple iOS users. Among those, some find privacy to be a concern; therefore, they turn location tracking off.

But what if turning location tracking off in Google environments didn’t perform the way you expected? Let’s say you disable the obvious Location History option in your application or account and Google continued to report on your location.

An Associated Press Report on research from Princeton University reveals that some Google apps continue to store time-stamped location data without the user’s permission. In other words, the user disabled location settings, but Google continued to collect the data.

The premise is very simple.  If a setting in an application is labeled “Location History” and you disable the “Location History” feature, then all of the places where location history are maintained should be disabled.  Right?

The Princeton researchers revealed that the Google apps continued to maintain scores of location information about the users’ movements even when “location tracking” is disabled in the user’s Google accounts.

Google responded to the Associated Press report. They indicated they use location services in other areas, beyond the straightforward settings (location history) to enhance the users’ experiences with their products.

Google mentioned Location History, Web and App Activity, and, device-specific Location Services as opportunities to improve the users’ experiences through location tracking.

I’d agree with those who have suggested that Web and App Activity isn’t straightforward; I doubt most users would have checked those settings for location tracking information.

So if you want to disable Google location tracking (for now), how do you approach it?

First, sign into your Google account.  In order to use your Android device and most Google apps, a Google account is needed.  After logging in, select “Your personal info” in the “Personal info & Privacy” section.

In the left-hand area, you should see an option entitled “Manage your Google activity”.  Select that. Then, on the window that appears, select “Go To Activity Controls” near the bottom of the window.

In the window, you will see the different types of data that are being saved to your Google account. The “Pause” feature of Location History isn’t all that needs to be enabled – location data will continue to be written to “Web and App Activity” even when you pause Location History.

To further prevent location from being tracked, you also have to pause your “Web and App Activity” as well.

On your Android phone, and iOS Google apps, you will need to thoroughly review the settings and disable them via the account’s Activity Controls – they vary by device and app.

It’s confusing. Is it misleading? Perhaps, but Google places statements on the settings that reveal suggestions and instructions for thorough disabling of the location features. It would probably be best to say that the settings aren’t placed intuitively.

Good luck.

William Greg Price is the Chief Technology and Security officer for Troy University and the Director of the Alabama Computer Forensics Institute. He currently represents District 2 on the Pike County Board of Education.