An Associated Press investigation has found that Google tracks geographical location on smartphones even after it might appear the user has explicitly opted out. Prompted by a blog post written by a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, the investigation focuses on a feature called Location History, which if turned on, allows Google to generate a mapped visualization of exactly where you’ve been throughout the day. The AP is confused, like so many of us, about the painful amount of freedom and anonymity we gave up long, long ago, that we should rightfully get back if only our governments would do anything about it, but here we go again.
While Google’s support page says that if you turn this feature off “the places you go are no longer stored,” AP reports that this isn’t entirely true—Google can still track where you are when you open maps, receive weather updates, or search for “chocolate chip cookies”.
In a statement made in response to AP, Google said it used “a number of different ways” to track a user’s whereabouts beyond Location History, like Web and App Activity and Location Services. Google’s capacity to track users is built deep into their networked architecture, where most of it happens automatically and in the background.
As Google points out, this pervasive data collection is precisely what “improves” “user experience,” making searching, maps, and recommendations more efficient. Even if reports like the AP’s generate fleeting moments of outrage, we’ve already traded away a healthy portion of our identities and habits in order to be able to both use Google Maps and be served endless programmatic ads. Whether Location History, a newish feature on the scale of Google as a company but old on the scale of smartphones that we carry everywhere we go, is on or off was never going to materially change that.
As always, it’s arguable whether Google is making the terms of this bargain explicit enough for us to make informed decisions about whether to opt in or out. When a user turns off Location History on an iPhone, a notification says, “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.” The average iPhone user would be forgiven for thinking that this message meant that they had opted out of being tracked, when in fact, they are only preventing location info from being stored in a specific place that is accessible to them. Google always receives this info, as does Apple , as does any app you are using gets it if it asks for it, unless the systemwide “Location services” settings are off for the smartphone itself, in which case a user wouldn’t be able to use something like Google Maps. If you think location tracking is off while Google Maps still shows you as a blue dot precisely where you are, I don’t know what to tell you.