Google has been accused of recording users’ location via Android and iPhone smartphones even they’ve explicitly turned off location tracking.
An investigation by the Associated Press found that a number of Google services running on Android and Apple devices determine the user’s location and store it, even when Google’s “Location History” setting is switched off.
The report raises new questions about internet giants’ policies on personal data at a time when the issue is in the spotlight.
Facebook is under pressure to change its data practices following a number of controversies, and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May, has created stricter rules around data protection and more substantial penalties for companies who infringe them.
Google said its privacy tools were “clear” and “robust”.
“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,” Google said in a statement provided to the AP. “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 AP started its investigation after a graduate researcher at UC Berkeley noticed her Android phone prompted her to rate a trip to a particular department store, even though she had turned Location History off.
The news agency found that Google services such as search and weather updates determine the user’s location and store it in their Google profile, if the user is signed in.
Google Maps also takes a snapshot of the user’s location when it is opened on a mobile device, with that information also stored in the user’s profile.
Those services’ tracking activities aren’t controlled by Location History, but by another setting called Web & App Activity, which can be accessed via a user’s online Google account.
The AP’s report suggested Google has gone out of its way to obscure the way its location tracking settings work.
It cited Google’s support page on the Location History setting, which reads: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”
To underscore the point, the AP constructed a map of the movements of a Princeton postdoctoral researcher, based on data sent to his Google account from an Android phone with Location History switched off.
The map displays the researcher’s train commute to New York City and visits to parks, markets, Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem.
When presented with the findings, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said such practices “diverge wildly from the totally reasonable expectations of their users”.
The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) declined to comment specifically on the AP’s report, but said European data protection law requires organisations “to be open, transparent and fair with the public about how their personal data is used”.
“Anybody who has concerns about how an organisation is handling their personal information can contact the ICO,” the office said in a statement.
Google’s access to its users’ location data is essential to its strategy of expanding targeted mobile advertising, on which US companies are expected to spend up to $20.6 billion (£16.3bn) this year.
Google offers additional location-based ad services as well, including one launched in 2014 that allows advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their ads by tracking footfall data. Google dominates online advertising, and the area makes up nearly all of its revenues.
The search giant and other tech firms have been criticised for making their privacy settings unnecessarily complicated, with the Norwegian Consumer Council in June finding that privacy-friendly options were hidden away or obscured.