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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

How Google’s location-tracking issue affects you

Watching Google watch us.
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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

Watching Twitter and Facebook commit reputational suicide over the past 20 months has been as painful as it has been entertaining -- entertaining in the sense that all anyone had to do was let the companies be themselves. The cost has been terrible, on democracy, the free press, at-risk populations and soon, I'll wager, on the economy. Still, it's hard not stay glued to our screens, waiting to see what awful things Facebook and Twitter do to us next.

While we've been perversely absorbed by the epic-scale human rights incompetencies of Facebook and Twitter (and trying not to get, you know, murdered, jailed or exiled as a byproduct of the platforms), we kind of forgot about some of the other born-yesterday stewards of humanity. Like Google. Which has apparently been playing fast and loose with the whole "we don't track your location" thing.

This week, the Associated Press published the findings of its investigation showing that Google tracks your locations even if you've shut off the Location History setting -- which is what the company says to do if you don't want Google tracking you. Google's Manage or delete your Location History page states, "You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."

"That isn't true," writes the AP. "Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking. (It's possible, although laborious, to delete it.)" Basically, it's the location leakage from almost everything that isn't Location History. To anyone who knows their way around the inherent deceit and data thievery of apps, that isn't a huge surprise when you think about it. Anyway, the AP explained:

For example, Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like "chocolate chip cookies," or "kids science kits," pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude -- accurate to the square foot -- and save it to your Google account.

The report also stated "Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP's request."

Not cool, Google. Not cool. When the AP's piece got traction, Google kind of scrambled to get its message together, giving different statements to different outlets. The AP got an old-school Facebook-style talking-around-the-issue, user-blaming statement about Google using location "to improve people's experience" and that people can use these "robust" settings to turn off tracking. Right. Then The Verge got a statement with "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 things like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions."

Well, at least that's more to the point. At least Google didn't say it cares about user safety while facilitating a literal genocide (Facebook) or get out a pair of InfoWars-branded kneepads for another mocking round of Trust and Safety theatre (Twitter). Small favors, we'll take you where we can get them.

Engadget contacted Google while preparing this article. We pointed out that there appear to be more ways that Google tracks user location, which indicates that the company's Location Pause is not sufficient to prevent a user's location from being tracked by the company. Because of this, we pointed out, the situation makes it impossible for a user to make an informed decision -- or give informed consent.

We received the following statement from a Google spokesperson: "We've built powerful data controls -- including on-device settings, Web and App activity, and within Location History -- that users can turn on or off at any time."

Google did not directly address the issues we asked them about.

The thing is, this affects everyone using a Google service, no matter what kind of phone they have. If you're wondering how it could possibly impact you, look no further than this week's news that in March the FBI pestered Google with a warrant over this exact data "to find all users of [Google's] services who'd been within the vicinity" of a nine-robbery string in Portland, Oregon. The request appeared to include "anyone with an Android or iPhone using Google's tools, not just the suspect," writes Forbes.

That's because, as the AP found in its investigation, the location-tracking privacy leak affects people using Google stuff on iPhones and everyone on Android.

"The FBI then demanded a lot of personal information on affected users, including their full names and addresses, as well as their Google account activity. The feds also wanted all affected users' historical locations," the article explained.

So the federal government is well aware that the Location History toggle doesn't technically do what everyone thinks it's supposed to be doing -- preventing your location from ending up on your permanent Google record. It's scary to think about what ICE would like to do with this particular attack vector. We should probably assume the same goes for every app we have on our phones, by the way.

Google didn't respond to the FBI's repeated demands to turn over the data, which is a bright spot in all this. However, if there was ever a period in history in which we should be really scared about the federal government going after data we can't control, it's now.

Look no further than what the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions did to the 230 people arrested -- including journalists and medical personnel -- at the Trump inauguration protests. In that instance, Washington, DC, police and the Superior Court of DC went for Facebook data (and the arrestees' phones) to eventually have the majority of those people facing 60 years in jail for protesting Trump.

And then there's the issue with location-data stalking, something that's been a real issue at Google (and Facebook).

Of course, it's all much worse now, because people haven't been aware of what they're at risk for, thanks to the incomplete information they've had. It's a shame after Google's foray into making its privacy tools more concrete for users. I think that if people know how much they're being tracked, and by whom, they might make different choices about the real-life risks for themselves and the people they care about.

If you want to drill down and cut off as many ways as possible Google might be peeping your location, check out our step-by-step guide in this article.

Right now we live in a time when it's completely impossible to know how we're being tracked, and by whom, and what happens to that information. Aside from slippery company doublespeak, your phone is a tracking device no matter how you slice it: Cell towers triangulate your physical position, and using WiFi clocks your location.

Then there are the things we don't expect, like this Twitter user recently discovering that Google Photos will auto-tag location even when you have geotagging turned off:

But carrying around a cardboard Eiffel Tower to place in photos so Google's AI Deep Mind "will begin to think Paris has widely varying terrain" is not the ideal solution.

For now, it's the only solution we have.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Google. (Saturday 18th 4:45pm ET),

Images: Anatolii Babii/Getty (Google maps)

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