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.