Google tracks the movements of smartphone users even when they adjust their mobile privacy settings to turn off these features, the Associated Press reported. While the search giant’s privacy page says, “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored,” the AP said that claim isn’t true.
The Google Maps navigation app, for example, collects location information when users open the app, while Android’s automatic daily weather updates give an approximate idea of user location. Princeton University computer-science researchers confirmed the AP’s findings.
Google describes how its tracking works more accurately in a pop-up that only appears when Google account owners “pause” Location History in their “Activity controls” web page. The pop-up says, “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps,” according to the AP. The newswire provided tips for consumers on how to avoid being tracked by Google while using their smartphones.
It’s too early to tell what effect the AP’s report about Google’s location-tracking will have on the company or on laws to protect user privacy. The news adds to a growing list of well-publicized examples, such as Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, of how digital platforms are potentially playing fast and loose with user privacy that could give pause to consumers and brands as they consider where to spend their time and money.
Google last year spent more than any other company to lobby on issues such as immigration, tax reform and antitrust regulation, per the Washington Post. The search giant is growing more dependent on location tracking to help sell advertising, particularly to marketers who want to monitor the effectiveness of their campaigns to drive visits to stores, movie theaters, restaurants and events. Google last month introduced a service called “local campaigns” at its Google Marketing Live summit to help advertisers measure the effect of ads on foot traffic.
The United States has fewer rules on data privacy compared with other regions like the European Union, whose strict General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect in May. The Federal Trade Commission has investigated allegedly deceptive practices by companies like Facebook, but recent privacy regulation has been the responsibility of individual states, such as California, which in June passed the toughest privacy law in the United States. The California Consumer Privacy Act stipulates that consumers have the right to the deletion of personal information such as geolocation, biometric data, internet browsing history, psychometric data and inferred personal profiles. Consumers also can opt out of the sale of their personal information, and access the data in a “readily useable format” that can be transferred easily to third parties, according to the Harvard Business Review. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter last month announced the Data Transfer Project to help move data between platforms, per a Google blog.
Privacy advocates have criticized Google’s data collection practices in the past. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt dismissed those concerns in an interview, saying, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Unfortunately, bad actors are relentlessly willing to do things they "shouldn’t" be doing, such as meddling in the elections of other countries, stealing personal data and posting objectionable content on social media. Data privacy issues have become more pronounced since a whistleblower from political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica this year revealed how the company collected Facebook user data to target audiences with issue ads during the 2016 U.S. election. The revelations and ensuing scrutiny from regulators pushed Facebook to be more open about its data collection practices and to be more diligent about policing its platform for political propaganda, sock-puppet campaigns and misinformation.