Google's location-tracking practices endured a new wave of scrutiny at the start of this week thanks to an investigation by The Associated Press, which put some meat on the bones of suspicion many users have harbored for a while now. By week's end, Google updated some language on the help page for its Location History setting, though its tracking policies remain largely unintelligible for the everyday consumer. And to be clear, the company has not changed anything about how it actually tracks the location of its users.
The AP investigation published on Monday, August 13th, detailed how Google continues to track a user's location when they do things like open the Maps app or use Google Search for queries (including those that don't have location-related terms) even if they pause the Location History setting. This was found to be the case in spite of the fact that on its help page about the setting, Google said: "With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."
A Google spokesperson gave this statement to the AP: "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."
On Thursday, August 16th, Google decided to make those descriptions a bit clearer by updating some language on its Location History help page to clarify that users can turn off the setting "at the account level" at any time. Previously, there was no mention of account level. The updated language also excludes this misleading line: "With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored." And there's now a mention of how location data can still be gleaned from a user's activity on services like Maps and Search.
You can compare the old and new language below:
Here's the old language on the Location History help page...
...and here's the updated language.
K. Shankari, a UC Berkeley graduate researcher who turned the AP's attention to this matter in the first place, said the new language is a step in the right direction; however, it fails to tell users about the Web & App Activity setting, which when toggled off (or paused, as Google likes to call it) will actually stop Google from storing a user's location data, among other things. But as Corbin noted in his recent post about improving privacy and security on Android, toggling this off will hamper some features, including Google Assistant.
The AP investigation is worth a read, as it may clarify Google's multi-pronged location-tracking practices a bit for you. But most folks have known about the company's creative ways of tracking or approximating the location of its users for a while now.
Google now being sued
According to legal documents uncovered by Ars Technica, a man from San Diego is suing Google in the San Francisco federal court for violating the California Invasion of Privacy Act. To make matters worse for Mountain View, it could end up being a class action lawsuit that includes Android and iOS users — potentially millions of plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could investigate whether Google has fallen short of a 2011 consent decree. With a hefty EU fine already hanging over the company, more legal heat is the last thing Google needs right now.
- US Court Complaint
- Ars Technica