Google tracks your every move. But you already knew that — even if you’ve never explicitly thought about it. The notion is completely understandable and explainable, for it is in Google’s interest to do so, and Google users frankly don’t care.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Google records your movements, courtesy of Android and iOS devices, even when you explicitly tell the company not to store your location data. Despite turning off the Location History setting, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data (though you can delete it manually).
On Thursday, Google admitted as much by updating its “Manage or delete your Location History” support page. Previously, it said, in part:
You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History 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.
Now, that section states:
You can turn off Location History at the account level at any time. This setting does not affect other location services on your device, like Google Location Services and Find My Device. Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps. When you turn off Location History for your Google Account, it’s off for all devices associated with that Google Account. You can also turn off Location services for a device.
Does this really surprise anyone?
I’m not saying this is OK. Google’s previous explanation is nefarious at worst, misleading at best. But it is completely expected, for multiple reasons.
First, search and advertising is Google’s bread and butter. Ads drive almost all of parent company Alphabet’s revenue. It has every reason to collect as much information as it can about its users in order to deliver better advertising solutions.
Second, even if you put advertising aside, the more data a tech company has, the greater potential it has for better features. Location data can be used to develop obvious new functionality, such as letting you know when you last visited a given location (something Google Maps does) or serving up more local results (something Google Search does). But data collection in general is helpful for coming up with new businesses ideas — the more you know about your users, the more you can offer them.
Third, and this is the most important one, nobody cares. Companies love Google because of its various advertising options (see No. 1) and users love Google because of its various free features (see No. 2). There is simply no incentive for Google to change its practices.
(And by the way, none of this is going to get any better as AI encroaches on every aspect of tech. AI needs more data, not less.)
This is not at all unique to Google. It’s a general trend in the technology vs. security paradigm. Internet users have shown repeatedly that they are willing to give up their privacy for free and useful features. See “if it’s free, you are the product” and all its variations.
With Google, the details here really don’t matter much. Can you really turn off all tracking across all of Google’s products and services? Google will assuredly say so — and maybe it will even be true! — but you’ll undoubtedly lose a lot of functionality.
And even then, can you be certain that with every update, your settings won’t be reversed? Will you bother to check every time to make sure every knob and every dial is set correctly? Can you ever be sure that Google products and services are doing what they claim?
There are two ways to go about this. The middle-ground — using Google and trying not to be tracked — is a fool’s errand.
You can ditch Google altogether — there are plenty of alternatives nowadays. Use separate services with the caveat that they won’t be as well integrated, but enjoy knowing that you’re not beholden to Google.
Or you can simply accept it, as most people have. Google is tracking me, and that’s OK. It’s a risk I’ve recognized in return for a suite of useful products and services.
Just don’t act surprised the next time we learn Google prioritized its business over your privacy.