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Turning off 'Location History' does not prevent Google from tracking you

By Cal Jeffrey · 11 replies
Aug 13, 2018
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  1. A researcher at UC Berkeley noticed something strange when she had Location History disabled. Her phone requested she rate a recent visit to Kohl’s, which prompted her to ask on her blog, “So how did Google Maps know where I was?”

    It’s a good question and one the Associated Press was eager to look into with the help of computer science researchers at Princeton University.

    If you’ve used a smartphone for any length of time, you’re probably aware that there are options to turn off location tracking. If allowed, Google apps will track your movements and save them to your account under your Location History. So if you turn off this setting, Google stops tracking you, right?

    It’s a fair assumption, but it is also wrong. Turning off Location History only stops Google from saving your movements to your visual history which you can view at any time on your Google account webpage. Even with Location History disabled, some apps still track your movements without you knowing.

    “Storing location data in violation of users' preferences is wrong.”

    “I am not opposed to background location tracking in principle,” said Berkeley urban planning researcher K. Shankari. “It just really bothers me that it is not explicitly stated.”

    Indeed, Google is not very transparent when it comes to notifying users of its location tracking practices. You can find it in its terms of use and a few other places that users tend not to tread much.

    “Storing location data in violation of users' preferences is wrong,” said Princeton computer scientist Jonathan Mayer, who also formerly served as chief technologist for the FCC. “If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off. That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”

    A Google spokesperson argued that the company is “perfectly clear” regarding its tracking policies and how to turn off services.

    “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. 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.”

    To completely disable location tracking, users must turn off Location History and Web & App Activity — something not made abundantly clear to the typical user.

    In fact according to the AP, “Google offers a more accurate description of how Location History actually works in a place you’d only see if you turn it off — a popup that appears when you ‘pause’ Location History on your Google account webpage.”

    Another popup also appears when re-enabling Web & App Activity, but since this setting is on by default, it’s not likely the users will see it unless they already know about disabling these services.

    Last year Google earned $95.4 billion from location-related advertising. It is no wonder that they bury how to opt out of these services deep within their privacy agreements, and obscurely related popups on the phone and account websites. Ignorance of these policies and procedures is no defense, but users these days are pretty lazy. This is a fact that Google banks on in a very literal sense.

    Map Image via The Mobile PC Guys

    Permalink to story.

  2. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 3,819   +2,173

    Wow! Imagine that. Turning off location history does not turn off location history! Who would have thunk it! /sarcasm
  3. regiq

    regiq TS Addict Posts: 237   +113

    Google is right that they've stated clearly about tracking in the tos. Author is right that users are lazy and don't even bother reading it.

    I just can't believe that it's possible to hide from google without hacking the device. It's $95 billion we're talking about...
    Cal Jeffrey likes this.
  4. treetops

    treetops TS Evangelist Posts: 2,496   +513

    It's so funny that all the stuff we passively accept could have a complete season of X-Files in the 90s.
    regiq, senketsu, wiyosaya and 3 others like this.
  5. ShagnWagn

    ShagnWagn TS Guru Posts: 684   +511

    When every single thing you try to do wants you to read a 50+ page "ToS" POS, of course everyone doesn't read it. These companies do this on purpose and hide their terms in lengthy text and lawyer speak that nobody can understand. How about leaving everything turned off unless we want to help improve the product? Oh that's right - they are doing all this thieving and deception for the love of money.

    “I am not opposed to background location tracking in principle,” said Berkeley urban planning researcher K. Shankari. “It just really bothers me that it is not explicitly stated.”

    That's great for you, but how about the rest of us they are thieving private info from? They are not upfront about these things in their scamming ways. This is called deception.
  6. Hexic

    Hexic TS Evangelist Posts: 490   +315

    Ain't that the friggin' truth.
    wiyosaya likes this.
  7. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 3,819   +2,173

    To follow up on @ShagnWagn said:

    The way that I see this is sort of like the warnings that are sometimes printed on a plastic bag: Might cause suffocation if you put it over your head and seal the bottom against your neck.

    In other words, gagme's statement is complete BS - IMO. They know that people do not read their TOS, and thus bury where the real settings are because they bet on people not reading the TOBS and deliberately mislabel controls to make people think that they do something other than what they really do. It is nothing better than a form of deception and then they blame it on their users for not reading the TOBS. I may be a bit forceful in saying this, but gagme is nothing but a corporate charlatan playing head games with their users in a form of corporate double-speak.

    You might call what I am saying conspiracy theory, and suggest that I get myself a new roll of aluminum foil and fashion a new tinfoil hat. However, companies like gagme and fakebook have had internal e-mails released that basically say they know what they are doing and that they are trying to control people's actions in order to maximize their profits.

    Given that, I would agree with you if gagme were the all-benevolent model of a modern tech company, but time and time again, they have proven that they are nowhere near that company - not in anyone's wildest dreams.
  8. netman

    netman TS Addict Posts: 280   +87

    "However, it may be a shock to find out that even if you turn off Location History, those apps are still tracking and collecting your location information."

    It is not a shock and this is not a new revelation....Its been like this from day one! Most of location-driven apps have access to your location thru your phone even with the Location Services in off position.

    Not to mention that the NSA can find your location through your SIM card vulnerability!
  9. An analogy: the corporations are Ivan Pavlov and we (the consumer) are the dogs.
    the corporations are working night and day, in more and more of life to condition us so that when the bell rings we salivate and rush off and buy the product, use the tech, use the software, any way possible that we can be parted with our money and never stop and think and say WTF this is over the line.
    wiyosaya and regiq like this.
  10. regiq

    regiq TS Addict Posts: 237   +113

    Of course you're right. Our data is their only source of income and they'll do whatever possible to keep it flowing.
    But I feel these wouldn't be common practices if more users minded what they agree to. You just need to understand this lawyer's babble once becouse privacy policies of different companies are very similar. This wouldn't be the case if it was a marketing meaningful differentiation.
    Thankfully the problem of incomprehensible terms of services is acknowledged by the creators of GDPR or for example this helpful site: https://tosdr.org/
    wiyosaya likes this.
  11. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 3,819   +2,173

    Personally, I use gagme only when I have to - that is my "control" over them. If enough people took that tack, then gagme might wake up.

    Part of the problem is that they sell services to entities that run web sites and provide them with statistical data. I'm not in marketing or sales, but I bet that that data is not all that useful beyond a certain point - so again - their marketing has convinced entities that they cannot live without the data that gagme provides.

    Also, I do have an android device at home, but I've uninstalled the gagme play store and other apps that I don't care about and kept causing it to kill apps that I do care about. I use it as an HT remote control, and nothing else. I've shut of the GPS and all access to it.

    And the last part about legislating plain language is, to me, obscene that we have to pass laws that force companies to use plain language. At the most fundamental levels, our society does not value anything but becoming richer than the entity next to you and that, at least as I see it, is where the problem lies. Until that changes, we can expect that this kind of outright deception will persist and that companies will then blame their deception on their customers.
    Absolutely. And speaking from personal experience, it is not an easy habit to break, but is something that can be done.
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2018
  12. Roush60

    Roush60 TS Rookie Posts: 21   +11

    Both my wife and son have Android based Samsung smart phones. If you want to stop ALL location services except for 911 calls, go into the GPS settings and turn it off except for 911 calls. Pure and simple way to stop location reporting and not nearly as complicated as trying the steps mentioned in this article. Because it is so simple and easy to do, I have used it multiple times, while visiting my son and his family, to locate restaurants or places to shop for particular items for our granddaughter. Using the GPS settings to turn it off keeps you from having to worry about the hidden tracking by Google.

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