Android or iOS – How Much Data Google Can Get from You Using This One Toggle Alone

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Jan 24, 2018
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Privacy may have become a myth but there are still ways we can limit how much data mega tech companies can hoard on us. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are some of the top companies that frequent news spaces when it comes to data collection. Google, probably, more than most. The tech giant is responsible for the world’s most used operating system, along with the billions of devices that are powered by that OS. The company is also a leader when it comes to Maps, Assistants, Search, and Advertisements making it potentially the most ubiquitous tech company in the world.

While this may be the era of Black Mirror, there are still ways you can have a control over your data – or at least some of it. A number of services are now tied up with giving up your data, however, so much of it can still be kept private. Google’s Location History is one such tool that can be easily disabled without giving up too many features/convenience.

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In a typical fashion of any other major tech company, Google doesn’t proactively disclose what Location History collects when it offers you to enable the option for better/more services. Recently, Google Photos prompted me to enable Location History to “see photos grouped by where you’ve been”. A very useful feature if you are on a holiday and want to remember about where you ate what without having to scribble notes.

However, the company doesn’t share that once enabled in the Photos app, the feature can then collect information from other parts of the ecosystem, as well.

Enable “Google Location History” inside Google Photos (or any other app), and it will be enabled everywhere else too

When I enabled Location History in Google Photos on my iPhone, the feature was also enabled in Google Maps, confirming that it’s a platform-wide toggle. However, when Google asks you to enable it – whether inside Photos, Maps, Assistant or elsewhere – it only talks about the features of that app, not that this will be enabled everywhere.

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Things get understandably worse when you are on an Android device. “Phones using Android begin silently transmitting data back to the servers of Google, including everything from GPS coordinates to nearby wifi networks, barometric pressure, and even a guess at the phone-holder’s current activity,” Quartz reported today, prompting our own analysis. “Although the product behind those transmissions is opt-in, for Android users it can be hard to avoid and even harder to understand. Opting in is also required to use several of Android’s marquee features.”

Opting in – another way to get away with a lot?

There’s a lot of fury when a privacy-relevant feature isn’t opt-in. However, by making it opt-in shouldn’t mean companies don’t have to talk about what that feature can do. A number of additional features often depend on that one toggle and, again, companies fail to proactively disclose what kind of information it collects or the access it gets when one toggle is turned on inside one app.

Google describes Location History as a mode to “deliver better results and recommendations on Google products.” An apt explanation since the feature does encompass the entire ecosystem, delivering several other features. You can also turn it off or even delete some activity once it’s enabled. However, these toggles remain hidden under nested settings unlike the proactive prompt that the company displays to get you to enable this feature.

While you may have turned on Location History inside Google Maps to keep a track of your travels, it can be used to sell targeted advertising or track consumers. This gives Google an immense amount of data from all the different apps you use – whether on Android, iOS, or the web. From Maps to Photos to Assistant to Search, all the activity is tracked, enabling the company to probably know more about you than your partner does. Where you went, what you ate, whom you met, what you searched, where you will go on the next holiday, and much more can be collected and potentially delivered to a government if such a request ever comes for it.

While the Quartz report focuses on Android phones and how every network request could be recorded, a similar amount of data can also be collected from other operating systems too. The publication in their research found the following data being transmitted (no SIM inserted, all Android devices) when Location History is enabled:

  • 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

Turning off Google Location History

As mentioned, enabling Google Location History enables every Google app to access this data, not just the app where you liked extra features and decided to turn it on. This also means that disabling it will disable it everywhere. [It doesn’t appear if you can keep this enabled inside one app while disabling it elsewhere; we have written to Google for a confirmation]

This is concerning because I may be okay with Google having access to this data for Google Photos alone, helping me to group photos by location, but not anywhere else. While everything is now being tied to ecosystems, this system also pushes users into giving up parts of their lives for features they may really want. If you are using Google Photos, you can disable Google Location History from the iOS or Android app.

  • Go to Google Photos > click on hamburger menu > settings icon > Google Location History > and turn it off here. disable google location history

In this screen, Google does tell you that it can help you get automatic commute predictions, improved search results, and more useful ads on and off Google by creating a private map of where you go with your logged-in devices. Google also adds that it will collect location data from devices where this feature is turned on, even if you aren’t using a specific Google product.

Scared? You should be. You can also turn Location History off from:

  • Activity controls section of My Account (go to https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols) google location history

Note that pausing Location History doesn’t delete any previously collected data. To remove that:

  • Go to maps.google.com/locationhistory (with your account logged in)
  • Click on Delete all Location history or any specific dates or locations data.  delete google location history

While Google may be tracking every move we make, it does often happen with our own consent for the sake of a few features or a little convenience. Can we as end users let go of those features for some shreds of privacy and data control until tech companies realize they have to do better than tying such an invasive feature with the entire ecosystem? Probably not.

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