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Google services on both iOS and Android may store your location data even if you’ve explicitly set privacy settings otherwise, according to an investigation conducted by the Associated Press and confirmed by researchers at Princeton. At the heart of the issue is a discrepancy between what users may expect a particular app setting to do, and how it actually works in reality.
Google is typically clear about its location-tracking, asking users permission to use location information in apps such as Google Maps. However, if users have turned off features such as “Location History,” which keeps a record of your movements over time, Google Maps will reportedly still capture your location each time you open the app. Similarly, when you open the weather app, it may triangulate your location. Some Google searches will use your exact location, as well.
And when you pause Location History—something many smartphone users likely have never done—Google does acknowledge that it may continue tracking your movements depending on what apps you use. A pop-up states that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.”
“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.”
As it turns out, user’s need to switch off “Web and Activity,” not just “Location History,” if they want Google to completely quit accessing and storing their location data. “Web and App Activity” is switched on by default. According to the AP, “leaving ‘Web & App Activity’ on and turning ‘Location History’ off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the ‘timeline,’ its visualization of your daily travels. It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.”
You can see your timeline by going to google.com/maps/timeline. This page has a link that lets you manage your Location History. Tapping that, you can choose to switch Location History off.
To see the full location history Google has collected on you, visit myactivity.google.com and log in to your Google account. On the lefthand menu on this page, you can delete activity collected by a specific Google product for a specific date range.
Update 11:32am CT, Aug. 17: Google has revised its user policy to be more transparent. Nothing has changed, but it now reads: “This setting does not affect other location services on your device.”
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.