If you believe that by turning off Location History on your Android device or iPhone means that Google won’t be able to know your location, think again: Princeton University researchers have confirmed Google services store users’ location regardless of those settings.
The research was performed on behalf of Associated Press, whose interest was piqued by a blog post by a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley, who noticed that her Android phone prompted her to rate a shopping trip to Kohl’s even though she had turned Location History off.
According to a Google spokesperson, the company does not hide this logging and use of location information.
“There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services. We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time,” the spokesperson said.
“Google is saying, with a straight face, that it’s perfectly clear that disabling the feature named ‘Location History’ does not prevent Google from tracking your location history,” John Gruber commented the news. “There’s nothing surprising about this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t shameful.”
What to do if you don’t want Google to know your location
Web and App Activity is enabled by default and saves (among other things) users’ location to their Google Account.
So, turning off Location History only prevents Google from adding your movements to the Google Maps Timeline feature. To stop the company from collecting location information completely, you have to also pause the Web and App Activity setting.
And, by the way, pausing it will not delete your past data – you have to delete it yourself from your account.
But, as Google earning advertising money depends on collecting as much information about users as possible, there is no guarantee that all this will work.
After all, the company is repeatedly finding new ways to pinpoint users’ location and users don’t always get told about it or are able to do anything about it.
UPDATE (August 17, 2018):
Despite claiming that they provide “clear descriptions” of tools users can use to control how their location information is shared, Google has updated the help page for the Location History setting to say “This setting does not affect other location services on your device.”
It also now made explicitly clear that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.”