Investigation Reveals Google May Still Be Tracking You, Even If Location Tracking Is Off

By August 16, 2018 Technology

If you spend any time online then you have seen the many articles circulating, warning you about the information collected by Google each time you log on your computer. These articles walked you through the process of turning off location tracking, however, a new investigation reveals that doing so may not be enough to protect your privacy.

There have been many warnings circulating the internet about the information that is collected on a daily basis on our cell phones. A problem experienced by everyone, regardless of whether they are Team Android or Team Apple, the ‘location services’ feature on your phone may be revealing a startling amount of information.

Are you aware of what Google actually knows about your life? The amount of personal information that it collects might alarm you. Each time that you turn on Google Maps, your phone transmits data about where you are in order to determine your directions. However, this data is collected under your ‘Location History’, providing anyone who accesses it a full detailed list of everywhere you’ve been. Furthermore, it has established and tracked two key locations – your home and work. Therefore, anyone accessing your phone data has these two addresses at their fingertips.

If that isn’t alarming enough, Google tracks a number of other information from your Google searches, YouTube searches, the websites that you visit, and more. This data, combined with your age and gender, will help to determine which ads you are shown customizing your advertisements to what Google perceives as your interests.

The recent scandals with Facebook have brought to light the importance of recognizing who is tracking our data, and what information they are collecting. In the face of this concern, Google stresses their privacy policy is in place to protect users, but not all experts are convinced. David Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School explained, “Google is walking a very fine line. Search, Android gives Google amazing insight into individual behavior. Google’s stated privacy policies seem adequate, but the question that I cannot answer is whether Google’s stated policy and actual behavior are one and the same. Facebook had a stated policy for the last three years which most of us found acceptable, until Cambridge Analytica came to light.”

Yoffie isn’t alone with his concern. Interested in whether Google’s statement and actions are in line with one another, the Associated Press (AP) conducted an investigation into how well Google was adhering to their own privacy policy. They then turned to a team of computer science researchers at Princeton to back up their findings. What they revealed was alarming…

Google is quite thorough in asking for your permission to collect and use your location information throughout their apps and programs. Their support page assures uses that “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” However, the AP investigation revealed that this isn’t the case. Even with the Location History paused or turned off, Google continued to store data through a number of apps. Google Maps wasn’t the only culprit, even your daily weather updates are determined based on your location services.

In order to reveal just how much this data is tracked, the team had Princeton postdoctoral researcher Gunes Acar carry an Android phone with his Location History off. They then took all of the data collected, putting it onto a map. This information included tracking his train commutes, as well as visits to a number of businesses including Central Park, Hell’s Kitchen, The High Line park, Harlem and Chelsea Market. Of course, it also included the most personal location, his home address.

When AP contacted Google about this information, they denied that their practices were anything but open and honest, stating, “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 thinks like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions.”

It’s time that we hold companies like Facebook and Google accountable for their actions. Writing a clear and concise privacy policy isn’t enough if the company fails to adhere to its policies. Furthermore, the ability to opt out and protect our own data is key. While it may impact our experience or hinder the use of some apps like Google Maps, that should be a decision that is left in the hands of the user. It’s time to reconsider just how much convenience is worth in terms of our personal information.

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