You can turn off tracking on your phone, but Google is still tracking you

After people began getting a bit antsy about how their phones were tracking their every move for the past several years, Google felt a need to respond. After all, their former motto was something about not being evil and you need to give the customer what they want. (Within reason.) CNBC covered an announcement from the company back in May which explained how easy it was.

It boiled down to a few basic bullet points: “Google has new tools that let you easily turn off everything it logs about you. You can turn off location history, Google Search results, YouTube Search logs and more. Keep in mind this changes how Google personalizes for you, however, so some people may want to leave this on for convenience.” They even published a step-by-step guide. It’s as easy a pie, so question asked and answered, right? You’re good to go.

There’s just one small problem. They didn’t tell you that even if you follow all those steps, chances are that you have apps on your phone that turn them back on anyway and Google continues to collect and store that information. (Associated Press)

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.

Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request…

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.

There are a number of examples, some of which at least make some sort of sense while others don’t. In the former category, if you open your Google Maps app, even with all the tracking permissions shut off, it still takes a “snapshot” of your location and stores it. That sort of makes sense since it would need to know where you are to show you any useful information on getting where you’re going. But wouldn’t it ask to have the permission turned back on first? And the fact that it doesn’t even need to ask indicates that you don’t have any control over whether the tracking is on or not.

Some other cases make less sense. If you get regular weather updates and alerts, even with location tracking turned off, it turns back on every time it updates the weather for you. I know that the default weather apps on Android have the option of identifying your “home” location and it could just show updates for where you live. But it still turns on tracking every time.

The AP discovered that some of their comforting messages about your privacy are misleading as well. If you turn Location History off, you will receive a message saying “None of your Google apps will be able to store location data in Location History.” That’s technically true. But it’s still storing the location information in another repository called “My Activity.”

If you want to shut all such tracking down you apparently need to go to a different setting not mentioned in their published, step-by-step instructions linked above. You need to go into your settings and find “Web & App Activity” and shut off tracking there. But even then the team who investigated this isn’t entirely sure that all tracking ceases.

I’m not personally too concerned about my phone knowing where I go. But I know some of you are, so hopefully this will help. Alternately, you could just go down to a river or stream, smash your phone with some rocks and throw it in the water. Problem solved!