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Google tracks user location even when forbidden, investigation finds

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An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) has found that many Google-run services continue to store location data, even when the user picks a privacy setting that explicitly says that it will prevent Google from collecting and storing this data.

Location tracking is a valuable feature of modern devices, allowing for navigation with apps such as Google Maps, fitness tracking, finding nearby restaurants and other attractions and even proving a vital feature of dating apps. However, having location mapped over time – which tends to require the app developer to request location tracking – can come at the expense of privacy; users’ day-to-day movements are used to target adverts for local products and services, but have also been used by law enforcement to identify people near crime scenes.

Location tracking can be switched off if the user “pauses” the Location History setting. According to Google’s explanation of the setting: “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored”.

However, AP reporters found that even with this setting paused, some Google apps automatically stored the locations users visited, and the times that they visited. According to AP, Google collects and stores location data when a user opens the Maps app, when it provides weather forecasts on Android phones and when some searches (unrelated to location) are made.

It is possible, although “laborious” to delete this information, requiring the users to delete markers one by one, AP said, and the issue affects approximately two billion Android users, as well as hundreds of millions of iOS users who use Google Search and Google Maps.

AP requested that its findings were checked by computer scientists based at Princeton, who confirmed the findings after checking multiple Android devices.

“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,” Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and a former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission, told AP. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”

Senator Mark Warner, Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a vocal critic of the business practices of Silicon Valley giants, told AP that it is “frustratingly common” for technology companies to have “corporate practices that diverge wildly from the totally reasonable expectations of their users”.

In a statement to AP, Google stated that users could prevent the company from saving location markers by turning off the “Web and App Activity” setting, which is enabled by default.

“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,” said a Google spokesperson.

Google’s collection and storage of search and location data from its users is, according to critics, strongly associated with its continued push to offer advertisers a more effective service. Tracking location could allow advertisers to place the most appropriate ads for users’ locations, and to determine whether their ads have led to increased foot traffic.

In May, a consumer group announced that it was taking legal action against Google on behalf of UK iPhone users. According to the group, Google was illegally collecting data as they used Apple’s Safari browser by exploiting default privacy settings.

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