Google, it seems, always tracks you a bit more than you think, and has often gotten in hot water about privacy concerns, especially on Android phones. The latest installment is that saga is its opt-in Location History tracking - you know, the one that the initial setup of Google Maps, Assistant, or Search apps are prompting you to turn on for better service. If enabled, however, it seemingly collects much more than your whereabouts in a historical timeline under the menu in Google Maps.
Quartz testers gathered a Galaxy S8
, Google Pixel 2
, and Moto Z Droid
with various Android update versions, and hooked them to a portable Wi-fi network that can register everything they broadcast to it. There were no SIM cards in the phones, and only Location History transmissions were taken into account. The network requests by the option were recorded by traveling around with the whole setup in shops, restaurants, during urban commute, and so on.
It turned out that the Location History-related transmissions to Google's servers involved much more than one would think, and Quartz made this laundry list of everything that got sent out during the experiment:
- A list of types of movements that your phone thinks you could be doing, by likelihood. (e.g. walking: 51%, onBicycle: 4%, inRailVehicle: 3%)
- The barometric pressure
- Whether or not you’re connected to wifi
- The MAC address - which is a unique identifier - of the wifi access point you’re connected to
- The MAC address, signal strength, and frequency of every nearby wifi access point
- The MAC address, identifier, type, and two measures of signal strength of every nearby Bluetooth beacon
- The charge level of your phone battery and whether or not your phone is charging
- The voltage of your battery
- The GPS coordinates of your phone and the accuracy of those coordinates
- The GPS elevation and the accuracy of that
Not only do a lot of these data points present a problem, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog, but the fact that Google can track your whereabouts via Bluetooth alone, and even when your phone's Bluetooth toggle is at the "off" position, is enough to raise some alarm bells about using Location History in the future. If you want Google to stop doing this at all times, you'd have to manually turn the "scanning" option from the Bluetooth settings, and turn Location History off, too.
Needless to say, when a Google spokesperson was reached for comment, they insisted that Location History is not on by default, and it's the Android user's choice whether to enable it or not, with the following statement:
With your permission, Google uses your Location History to deliver better results and recommendations on Google products. For example, you can receive traffic predictions for your daily commute, view photos grouped by locations, see recommendations based on places you’ve visited, and even locate a missing phone. Location History is entirely opt-in, and you can always edit, delete, or turn it off at any time.