Blog/Expert Analysis/

What is Google location tracking?

May 04, 2020

The times when people could walk around without being tracked are gone. As long as you’re carrying your phone with you, Google is collecting your location data: it can see where you traveled, how long you stayed there, and when you came back home. Sound similar to 1984 by George Orwell? Well, Google location tracking isn’t fiction.

How Google tracks your location

A special feature called Timeline records your whereabouts. It is turned off on your device by default, but Google claims that by enabling it you get personalized maps, recommendations based on the places you’ve visited, real traffic updates, and more useful ads.

However, it was revealed that Google location history on Android devices and iPhones stores your location data even without being turned on. Each time you typed something in Google Search, opened Maps, or had your weather forecast updated, Google tracked your exact location.

Why should I worry about it?

Google knows a lot about our lives and turns that knowledge into profit. Whenever you google something, use Maps, or buy something online, everything is tracked to help pick out relevant ads for you.

Now imagine a database that knows your home address, when you go to work, your occupation, when you go to the gym, what kind of events you attend, even your regular route for walking the dog. If this information were to fall into the hands of burglars, they could pick a moment when you’re away from home to break in.

Tracking location in the background

It’s not only Google location service that you have to be wary of — you can be tracked through the geodata that is attached to the photos you share online, since most cell phones automatically record this information. Many apps also track your location data in the background and keep a detailed picture of your whereabouts. Every time you visit a website, connect to Wi-Fi, or log into your Twitter account, you leave a trace.

But there is some good news on the background tracking front. In 2019, Apple released iOS 13 that periodically reminds about active location access for apps and offers to turn it off. And Google announced that in 2020 all apps on the Play Store that request your background location will need to be approved. The company claims that some apps want your location data for no reason and could do their job without it.

Location history to fight COVID-19

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Google introduced Community Mobility Reports to help public health officials. These reports use data from the Google location history to illustrate how people are following the recommendations to work from home and avoid public places.

Google’s Community Mobility Reports cover 131 countries, with charts to show how people’s behavior changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Google officials claim that this data is anonymized and no personally identifiable information has been made available at any point.

The reports currently show several weeks’ trends, with Google planning to update the data in the future. While helping to fight the virus is a noble move, it also illustrates the current situation of our privacy — we are tracked whether we want it or not.

How can I avoid being tracked?

Users can turn on incognito mode to avoid being tracked or delete their whole Google location history (or just certain locations). However, internet service providers and apps may still have access to your location data even in Incognito mode. If you’re concerned, you can also ask Google to email you the list of locations you have visited in the last 30 days.

You can find out more ways to stop Google from tracking you in our detailed guide. But ultimately, the only surefire way to avoid being tracked is to turn off your GPS, which is not an option for most as many apps rely on it.

Elisa Armstrong

Elisa Armstrong

Verified author

Elisa’s all about languages. She speaks five, loves stand-up comedy, and is writing her first novel. Besides her extensive knowledge of cybersecurity, she’s an expert in persuasion techniques hackers use and strives to teach people how to avoid online scams.