Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Google is actually tracking you even when you switch your device settings to Location History “off”.
As journalist Mark Ames comments in response to a new Associated Press story exposing Google’s ability to track people at all times even when they explicitly tell Google not to via iPhone and Android settings, “The Pentagon invented the internet to be the perfect global surveillance/counterinsurgency machine. Surveillance is baked into the internet’s DNA.”
In but the latest in a continuing saga of big tech tracking and surveillance stories which should serve to convince us all we are living in the beginning phases of a Minority Report style tracking and pansophical “pre-crime” system, it’s now confirmed that the world’s most powerful tech company and search tool will always find a way to keep your location data.
The Associated Press sought the help of Princeton researchers to prove that while Google is clear and upfront about giving App users the ability to turn off or “pause” Location History on their devices, there are other hidden means through which it retains the data.
According to the AP report:
Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject 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. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.
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 issue directly affects around two billion people using Google’s Android operating software and iPhone users relying on Google maps or a simple search.
Among the computer science researchers at Princeton conducting the tests is Jonathan Mayer, who told the AP, “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,” and added, “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”
Google, for its part, is defending the software and privacy tracking settings, saying the company has been perfectly clear and has not violated privacy ethics.
“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 statement to the AP reads. “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.”
According to the AP, there is a way to prevent Google from storing the various location marker and metadata collection possibilities, but it’s somewhat hidden and painstaking.
Google’s own description on how to do this as a result of the AP inquiry is as follows:
To stop Google from saving these location markers, the company says, users can turn off another setting, one that does not specifically reference location information. Called “Web and App Activity” and enabled by default, that setting stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account. But 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 delete these location markers by hand, but it’s a painstaking process since you have to select them individually, unless you want to delete all of your stored activity.
Of course, the more constant location data obviously means more advertising profits and further revenue possibilities for Google and its clients, so we fully expect future hidden tracking loopholes to possibly come to light.
Beginning in 2014, Google has utilized user location histories to allow advertisers to track the effectiveness of online ads at driving foot traffic. With the continued possibility of real-time tracking to generate billions of dollars, it should come as no surprise that Google would seek to make it as difficult (or perhaps impossible?) as it can for users to ensure they aren’t tracked.
As for the government, we can only imagine the creative surveillance “fun” Washington’s 16+ intelligence agencies are having with such a powerful tool right now.
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