Google’s Location History Is Optional, But Doesn’t Always Tell Users How It’s Using Their Data

Eric Lieberman | Associate Editor

Google Android, the company’s mobile operating system, is constantly collecting information on users, many of whom don’t realize they are giving up so many unique details.

Location History, a Google product that is embedded in many proprietary apps like Google Maps, is used by the company to collect data that is required for features to work effectively, but also can benefit the company and its other goals.

That stockpiled information is actually more extensive than many realized, according to an investigation by Quartz, even going beyond the bounds of what is necessary for the app to function.

When enabled, Location History sent a number of different sets of data back to Google servers, says Quartz, including:

  • A list of types of movements that your phone thinks you could be doing, by likelihood. (e.g. walking: 51%, onBicycle: 4%, inRailVehicle: 3%)
  • The barometric pressure
  • Whether or not you’re connected to wifi
  • The MAC address — which is a unique identifier — of the wifi access point you’re connected to
  • The MAC address, signal strength, and frequency of every nearby wifi access point
  • The MAC address, identifier, type, and two measures of signal strength of every nearby Bluetooth beacon
  • The charge level of your phone battery and whether or not your phone is charging
  • The voltage of your battery
  • The GPS coordinates of your phone and the accuracy of those coordinates
  • The GPS elevation and the accuracy of that

“That goes beyond what you’d expect for Location History, especially in terms of predicted activity,” Bill Buddington, a security engineer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Quartz.

Google’s Location History is opt-in, meaning permission is required before accessing users’ data. The apparent problem is that the details of what such an agreement or system means are relatively limited and sparse.

Quartz provides a set of examples in order to prove its point. When searching through a smartphone’s photo albums through “Places,” which separates personal images by where they were recorded, the app expresses the need to turn on Location History “to see photos grouped by where you’ve been.” There is very little, if any, other information provided, such as how that location data may be used for other purposes or given to third-party’s.

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A separate Quartz probe alleges that even when a user turns off Bluetooth, which can track people’s location, Google’s Android software can still gather relevant data.

Some of the most popular apps available on Google’s Play Store — like Uber, Spotify, and Tinder — have tracking capabilities, leaving users’ privacy very vulnerable, according to a somewhat recent study conducted by Yale University’s Privacy Lab and Exodus Privacy, a nonprofit based in France. The apps contain third-party tracking codes, meaning personal information of users is collectable, and can be subsequently used for advertisements and services.

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