Google Admits to Location History Collection

Posted on August 16, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Google with 42 Comments

Just days after an explosive report claimed that Google was collecting location data when disabled by the user, the online giant has admitted to the behavior.

The issue is clear enough: Google provides a Location History interface for its account settings, and it allows users to disable this tracking and delete their history at any time. The problem? Even if the user does disable location history, Google continues tracking their location.

The key, as the Associated Press discovered, is a related option called Web and Web Activity. When this option remains enabled, Google continues tracking your location.

When pressed on this topic, Google’s initial response was, shall we say, a bit less than believable.

“There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services,” a Google spokesperson told the AP. “We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.”

Few people would agree that Google’s descriptions of its location-tracking collection were “clear.” But not coincidentally, the online giant has just quietly changed those descriptions to make them, if not “clear,” then at least clearer.

More important, in doing so, it has admitted to the behavior alleged by the AP.

“You can turn off Location History at the account level at any time [but] this setting does not affect other location services on your device, like Google Location Services and Find My Device,” a Google help page now reads. “Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps. When you turn off Location History for your Google Account, it’s off for all devices associated with that Google Account.”

Previously, this page claimed that “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” The page was changed sometime on Thursday.

When asked by the AP about the quiet change, Google issued the following response.

“We have been updating the explanatory language about Location History to make it more consistent and clear across our platforms and help centers,” Google says.


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Comments (42)

42 responses to “Google Admits to Location History Collection”

  1. Minke

    It is impossible not to be tracked in numerous ways unless you leave the Internet, stop using credit cards, don't use a debit card, never use an ATM, etc. In other words, for most of us modern life includes the assumption we are tracked all the time, everywhere, no matter what we are doing. I have spoken to many younger people who don't understand what us old farts are talking about with regard to "privacy." It is not a concept that is within their understanding. For example, when I graduated from high school I expected to never see or hear of most of the people I knew, except for the occasional reunion. Today, that level of privacy is unheard of. Everyone follows everyone else from the time they can first comprehend how to use a smartphone.

    • jamiet

      In reply to Minke:

      This has nothing to do with all the various ways you can be tracked.

      It has everything to do with Google being deliberately unclear about their practices.

      Google were not clear about location tracking. Even if you turned off location tracking, you were still being tracked by Google. The user is unaware that their location can still be tracked.

    • fbman

      In reply to Minke:

      And majority of users have no issue with google or any software company tracking or collecting information about them. For them the best part is google gives them free stuff, so who cares.

      Even though there is a outcry over privacy on-line, it comes from a small very vocal minority

      • Jacob Klein

        In reply to fbman:

        The users who turned location services off, care. Even if in the minority. Stop distracting or trying to devalue their worth.

      • waethorn

        In reply to fbman:

        "Even though there is a outcry over privacy on-line, it comes from a small very vocal minority"

        So how many is it? You're stating a percentage of a whole as if you know what those figures are. You can't claim to know what constitutes a minority without knowing the total.

    • Captain_Eric

      In reply to Minke:

      I hear argument a lot.

      While I take your point that this problem is widespread, I don't think the solution is to accept it (because everyone is doing it and we need to manup to the world realities. Uh uh. Not me! ).

      This is not the way anyone wants it to be.

      It was built on obfuscation and disception of a dispersed wide spread, and really weak user base.

      Think about how we would set it up if we were free to do so. It would not be like this!

      So, I'm of the school that says we need to really push to get this obfuscation and invasiveneas vastly reduced.

  2. waethorn

    The clear solution: expunge all things Google from your life. Kill your Google Account and destroy your Android phone. #OTGphone

  3. dontbe evil

    no surprise from scroogle

  4. jrswarr

    Now more than ever, I miss my Windows Phone. Only having IOS or Android to choose from is clearly not enough. We really do need a third choice.

  5. Brazbit

    So location tracking was turned off yet Find My Phone and Maps kept working but it took how many years and investigative reporting to figure out that Google was still tracking your location? Did people think this was happening by magic?

    Find My Phone literally states that your phone was last seen at this location. Without at least a base level of location history it would be useless unless the phone had signal and a GPS signal at the moment you checked. Same with maps, you open the app or do a location search and it starts from your last location until it geys a current fix otherwise it would start in Kansas or 0,0,0 like the old days when getting a fix took several minutes.

    Nothing in this should be a surprise to anyone.

  6. Sprtfan

    I'm surprised that Paul was not more critical of this. I wouldn't blame Google if it is on be default and it actually should be, but if someone goes to the effort of turning it off, it should be off. If Microsoft did anything similar to this I think there would be a huge uproar.

  7. MikeGalos

    What I don't understand is why Google doesn't just get it over with and change their motto from Don't Be Evil to Don't Get Caught.

  8. evancox10

    Seems like the main disconnect is that Google views Location History as a specific service, just one of many that may collect your location, while consumers rightly view it as "location history", ie the general collection of information about your location. The switch turned off Location History, but not location history!

  9. smithduluth

    If you are worried about all of this, you better not use a credit card in a store as then "they" will know where you are and when you were there.

    • YouWereWarned

      In reply to smithduluth:

      If your credit card dribbled the number of location fixes a smartphone can/does, it would melt your wallet.

      Paul wondered why I was not a Chrome fan, and this is a big example. I spent the last week rebuilding my parent's "you pay us not to be evil" Apple products, which unfortunately all include the Facebook trojan. The intentional level of obscurity in "privacy" settings and complexity in finding and adjusting ALL of them makes this Google revelation a non-event. And big data ensures that multiple factors can fill in for the pesky "enable location" toggle. When lawyers are rewriting the Help files, you know who is being helped.

  10. chrisrut

    Ambiguity is a bitch...

    Reference the Twilight Zone episode; "To Serve Man."

  11. John Craig

    Oh Google, you insidious little shits

  12. melinau

    The sad, simple fact is that we are all as lambs to the slaughter when it comes to "privacy".

    Having said that, Google's lying about what they track & when isn't acceptable.

    I always assume the worst: whenever I am online in any way I'm being tracked and my actions logged in various ways. But when a company strongly suggests it is respecting my wishes to not be tracked, and even gives me a (useless) toggle to switch it off, I'd hope that they were honouring this undertaking.

    Yet again Google is caught-out blatantly misleading \ lying to its users - I've lost count of how often this has happened.

    There will be no come-back on Google, whose motto might more accurately be along the lines of "Screw the users". With its de-facto monopoly, it can, and does do as it likes....

  13. red.radar

    Time to break them up.

    We broke up Standard Oil during the industrial revolution, Time to break up Google in the Information Age. They have way to much power and its obvious they are just as flippant about the rights and privacy of their customers as Facebook.

    I know its not perfect because the problem isn't google...its the business model the internet is built upon. Free stuff in exchange for information. We need to figure out how to regulate this and get some basic consumer protections, because its obvious that the industry is not doing a good job on its own.

  14. lvthunder

    So Google isn't going to change anything except the descriptions on a website most won't even read. I'm surprised they haven't been sued in the EU yet over this.

    • Pungkuss

      In reply to lvthunder:

      They should not change this. Some apps rely on these services to work. Example being the maps application and search itself. This has more to do with apps working correctly than data collection. They just need to better explain these things.

      • Malec

        In reply to Pungkuss:

        I don't understand, and maybe you can help me clear this up in my mind. I get that some apps require location to provide a specific experience. Don't laugh at my example, please! The McDonald's mobile ordering app, for instance, relies on location to signal that I am in the vicinity of the restaurant and the kitchen should prep the order.

        Is it technically impossible to pass location information from the hardware from the phone to the McDonald's app without sending that information through a Google service (if location tracking is denied in settings)? I think I'm making a leap here in assuming that in this instance, Google would not have access to my data--but I might be wrong.

        Is this the scenario that is exposed in this AP report?

        • AnOldAmigaUser

          In reply to Malec:

          If you use your example, then you have to add to it the fact that you specifically disabled location history prior to ordering your big mac. Now, you may have remembered after the order that you had disabled that and thought, well, hell, I am going to have to wait for my order now.

          However, because you did not disable web and web activity, then the McDonald's app can still track your location so your lunch is saved, so to speak. In this case, it works out for you, but you end up asking yourself how did that work when it should not have.

          This speaks to both sides of the problem. By disabling location history, you are saying you do not want your location tracked in history. However, you want McDonald's to know where you are, so they can ready your order. The issue is that Google collects the location in the history of that event and stores it. While you want McDonald's to know, Google now has that location information and can give it to other advertisers who have a location filter on their ads, so you may see an ad for a nearby shoe store or something. You did not necessarily want those entities to know your location, and since the ads are supposedly just shown based on location and nothing else, perhaps they do not know it is you, just someone nearby; but it might creep you out anyway.

          Use of the data, provides a benefit to you in that your lunch is ready. Having a location history can benefit you, because Google knows the route you take to work and can route you around delays (We know where you live and the route you take home...that used to be a threat.)

          Now, because the information is in a history, it can be subpoenaed by a government agency. It can also be shared with other third party entities, though hopefully, it would be non-personally identifiable by that point, though I think companies are a bit hazy on what that means. Verizon sent something saying they would share non-pii data, like address on a recent privacy update. Well it takes no time to take an address and identify residents of that address; and if it is a single family dwelling, it is trivial to then deduce the family members, and cross reference that with all sorts of demographic data, then mix with data from Facebook...and, well personal profiles will result.

          I am not a customer (advertiser) of Google, nor a developer of apps meant to work with their information, so I do not know what the data they share looks like, but I am pretty sure that if someone receives location history of an individual, it is fairly trivial to pinpoint the home address, and from there, who the individual is. I also think it is fair to say that many of those who might receive this data may be somewhat careless with it, and others, may have nefarious purposes for getting the data in the first place.

          As I see it, the issue is that Google is not clear in explaining how to disable location history; if anything they are a bit deceptive. When a user indicates they do not want location history tracked, that should, in my opinion apply across all apps. If something does not work, then the app could gracefully fail, telling the user it needs location history to work correctly.

          The bigger issue is that as a society, we are not discussing the issues and potential pitfalls that go along with the collection and analysis of all this data on individuals. We might discuss these things on forums like this, but if you try discussing this with a normal person, their head will explode. Literally, all of this is PFM for them.

      • pdhemsley

        In reply to Pungkuss:

        I think the more relevant point is whether Google permanently retains a record of your location data when Location History is disabled. It’s reasonable that Google should note and use your location to fulfil a specific purpose when you request it - “find me restaurants near where I am now”. However my expectation would be that this information is forgotten once I have completed this transaction - if Location History is disabled. That seems not to be the case, and is why I think Google’s practice here is dubious.

      • wright_is

        In reply to Pungkuss:

        Search doesn't need location. 99% of the searches I do are at most language relevant (I live in Germany, but do a lot of English language searches, because it is my native language), but location is totally irrelevant.

        If I want location relevant information, I'll enter the postcode or town name.

        And maps, yes, it needs the current location, when you start it. But it doesn't need to store it by default (i.e. history). It should be my decision, whether to enable them or not, not Google's.

        And under EU law, they have to be disabled by default and I have to manually enable them, if I want them.

        • Pungkuss

          In reply to wright_is:

          'need' is maybe the wrong word for search. 'Works best' is maybe better. When you ask what time a restaurant closes, search will take your location into account to determine which of those restaurants you want. Most questions you ask search about businesses uses location as a part of the algorithm to give you results. Google rightly assumes information on the stuff closest to you is more important.

          As for Maps I am not sure but my thought process is, if you are planning a trip with multiple stopping points it's most optimal to keep where you have been, especially when trying to suggest activities to try out in a city.

          All I am saying is that these apps work best with it on. Google needs to explain all this fully and then give the consumer a chance to make an informed decision. When they don't people will always assume the worst.

          • wright_is

            In reply to Pungkuss:

            If I enter "opeing times restaurant, town", why does it need my current location? What if I am looking for the times of a restaurant or shop in a town I am travelling to next week, so I can arrange to meet someone? My current location is useless.

            Also, for me personally, I would say 99% of my searches are for things like PowerShell cmdlet properties, and support information on Veeam, VMware and other administration tools. Again, no need for location.

            Maps, I probably use that to actually plan a route maybe once or twice a year. 99% of the time, I am going places in the same country and don't need to look it up on the map, and my car has a nav system for the last 500M of the journey.

            I spent years travelling all over Europe on my motorbike, with nothing more than a bunch of Post-Its in the window of my tank-bag, listing the roads and turnoffs I needed to take and the major towns I had to pass through, in case I had to take a diversion. I went from South England down to Italy with nothing more than a dozen Post-Its.

            But I'll give you an upvote for your last paragraph, with the caveat that these things should be disabled by default, as per the law here, and users should then be able to turn them on as needed.

    • wright_is

      In reply to lvthunder:

      It is being rumoured that this could be the first test case for GDPR.

  15. jbuccola

    The incentive for Google to guard your privacy is far outweighed by their business model, which monetizes your personal info. Their products simply aren't *that* much better to warrant such a trade off.

  16. dstrauss

    Paul - just a few days ago you wrote an excellent article on how Microsoft hides privacy busting settings in an unbelievable number of places in the OS, now this on Google - care to tackle Apple for us to see if there is any hope of even a semblance of privacy on any device?