With a new data breach or tech scandal seemingly every other week, it's easy to get disillusioned by the cavalier mishandling of user data by technology companies. At some point, it gets a little weird when a multi-billion dollar corporation knows more about your whereabouts than your significant other. And as data-collector-in-chief and Earth's unofficial cartographer, Google knows the most about your location. Luckily, the process of thwarting location tracking on your devices is easier than you think, albeit clunky and unintuitive (perhaps the way Google intended).
Before we proceed: What are we actually turning off?
First, when you're logged in to multiple Google accounts, you'll need to switch between each user and turn off tracking individually, as the settings only apply on a per-account basis. More importantly, when you turn off Location History, it doesn't mean Google has stopped tracking your location altogether. You need to turn off another option called Web & App Activity.
In Google's own words, this is what Location History stores:
(It) Saves where you go with your devices, even when you aren't using a specific Google service, to give you personalized maps, recommendations based on places you've visited, and more.
And this is what Web & App Activity stores:
(It) Saves your activity on Google sites and apps, including associated info like location, to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.
In short, Location History stores all location data that's logged automatically by Google apps (like Maps storing a timeline of all the places you've visited).
Web & App Activity, on the other hand, logs your location every time a query is manually entered on Search, YouTube, or other places to give you localized results. Tricky, we know. So if you want to stop Google from tracking you altogether, switching off both options is the way to go.
Disable Google location tracking on Android devices
Step 1: Open Settings on your phone and tap Google.
Step 2: Select Manage your Google Account.
Step 3: Select the Data & personalization tab from the account dashboard.
Step 4: Now scroll down till you find Activity Controls. Here you'll find the two options that need to be disabled. Just toggle both to the off position.
When you disable Web & App Activity or Location History, the app will ask if you want to pause them. Just know that it's Google's way of letting users know that the action isn't permanent, and that you can re-enable tracking at any time.
If you're extra paranoid like me, you could turn off sharing usage and diagnostics as well. Although, Google does assure users that location isn't part of the data it collects for diagnostics.
Disable Google location tracking on the web
For this to work, you first need to be signed in to your Google account on your web browser.
Step 1: Click on your Google avatar on the top right of the search engine page.
Step 2: Hover over to the Google Account button and click on it. Doing so will take you to an account dashboard where you can manage all settings related to your Google account.
Step 3: Select the Data & personalization tab and scroll down until you see Activity controls.
Step 4: Here, you see the options to switch off Web & App Activity and Location Activity, which will effectively stop Google from tracking your location activity.
Disable location tagging on your Camera app
If you use Google Photos to back up pictures and videos, it uploads files directly stored in the camera folder of your device. Generally, most Camera apps go for an opt-in approach for tagging location data to photos. If geotagging is turned on in your Camera app, Google Photos automatically uploads it as part of the file's EXIF data. Currently, there's no preference in the Photos app to upload pictures without tagging its location. So you'll have to switch off geotagging directly from the Camera app to prevent Google from storing your location.
But it should be noted that the Photos app could still use machine learning to automatically identify and tag popular locations or landmarks. While there’s no dedicated option to turn off these suggestions, you can remove them manually after it identifies a location.
Disable Google location tracking on iOS (iPhone / iPad)
Let's just say that Apple and Google have different mission statements when it comes to how they make their moola. Due to the more closed nature of iOS, it's generally harder for apps to access and log user data (even though that hasn't stopped apps from trying). Apple also uses visual indicators to show when apps are continuously accessing location in the background.
Despite this, the best way to stop Google's location tracking would be to do it from a browser or the Google search app on your device, as documented in the above steps. You can also do so just as you would on Android using the official Google app for iOS.
Although turning off location history will prevent Google from tracking your location, it's not going to delete your previous activity. There's only so much Google can do in iOS to make these options presentable and easy to find. Android, on the other hand, could use a dedicated privacy button directly in its Settings app. But that's a topic for another article we'll soon share with you.
Includes a section on disabling geotagging photos