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Google saves location data without permission; tweaks help page

Google has revealed that it tracks a user’s location even if the user has turned ‘Location History’ off. It did so in a changed a help page which throws light on the function. On the page, the company mentions that “Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.” Earlier, the same page stated that “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

The tweak comes after an Associated Press investigation revealed that several Google apps and websites store user location even if users have turned Location History off.

Location tracking via apps

AP found that Google continues to track users through services like Google Maps, weather updates, and browser searches — more or less any app activity can be used to track users. Google can track users on a minute-to-minute basis, right down to their precise latitude and longitude, via these apps which act as location markers. Users may be misled into believing that they are not being tracked if they have turned off ‘Location History’, but it is untrue. AP noted that “Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app.”

When a user turns off their Location History, Google simply stops adding users’ movements to its Timeline feature, which visually logs all the locations the users’ has been to while the feature was on.

Google said it had been clear enough

Google’s justification was that it clearly spells out the purpose and functionality of Location History. “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,” the company told AP in response to AP’s findings.

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“Location History is a Google product that is entirely opt in, and users have the controls to edit, delete, or turn it off at any time. As the story notes, 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,” it added.

To stop Google from tracking your location history, users have to disable a setting called “Web and App Activity” which is enabled by default. This setting does not explicitly state that it uses location tracking. However, it does store a variety of information from Google apps and websites to users’ Google account.

It is not the first time that tech companies’ location tracking of its users has become evident. A Quartz investigation from last year revealed that Android phones have been collecting users’ location and sending the data back to Google — via the addresses of nearby cellular towers, even while location services were disabled and phones did not carry a SIM card. Although Google had confirmed the data collection then, it said the data was never used or stored, and that the company would disable this feature from its Android phones.

A Gizmodo report from earlier this year found that Facebook could track its users by “comparing the accelerometer and gyroscope readings of each phone”, the dust and scratches on the phone lens among other methods, for its “People You May Know” feature.

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