If, like most people, you thought Google stopped tracking your location once you turned off Location History in your account settings, you were wrong. According to an AP investigation published Monday, even if you disable Location History, the search giant still tracks you every time you open Google Maps, get certain automatic weather updates, or search for things in your browser. There’s a way to stop it—but it takes some digging.
The problem affects anyone with an Android phone and iPhone users running Google Maps on their devices, according to the AP report, which researchers at Princeton University verified. That’s more than two billion people
The Google support page for managing and deleting your Location History says that once you turn it off, “the places you go are no longer stored. When you turn off Location History for your Google Account, it’s off for all devices associated with that Google Account.” The AP’s investigation found that’s not true. In fact, turning off your Location History only stops Google from creating a timeline of your location that you can view. Some apps will still track you and store time-stamped location data from your devices.
More specifically, the AP was able to track Princeton researcher Gunes Acar’s home address, as well as his daily activities, using just Google Web & App activity, which he had shared with the news agency.
“If Google is representing to its users that they can turn off or pause location tracking but it’s nevertheless tracking their location, that seems like textbook deception to me,” says Alan Butler, senior council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
To actually turn off location tracking, Google says you have to navigate to a setting buried deep in your Google Account called Web & App Activity, which is set by default to share your information, including not just location but IP address and more. Finding that setting isn’t easy. At all.
1. Sign in to your Google account on a browser on iOS or your desktop, or through the Android settings menu.
2. In the browser, access your account settings by finding Google Account in the dropdown in the upper right-hand corner, then head to Personal Info & Privacy, choose Go to My Activity, then in the left-hand nav click Activity Controls.
3. Once there you’ll see the setting called Web & App Activity, which you can toggle off.
On your Android phone,
1. Go from Google settings to Google Account, then tap on Data & personalization.
2. You’ll find Web & App Activity there.
Google further buries the notion that Web & App Activity has anything to do with location. In fact, the setting sits right above the Location History option, suggesting at a glance that the two things are quite distinct. And Google’s vanilla description of Web & App Activity is that it “Saves your activity on Google sites and apps to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.” From there, you have to tap Learn more, then scroll to What’s saved as Web & App Activity, and tap againon Info about your searches & morebefore Google says anything about location whatsoever.
To stop that tracking, toggle the blue Web & App Activity slider to off. Google will then give you a popup warning: “Pausing Web & App Activity may limit or disable more personalized experiences across Google services. For example, you may stop seeing more relevant search results or recommendations about places you care about. Even when this setting is paused, Google may temporarily use information from recent searches in order to improve the quality of the active search session.”