Pop quiz: Do you know where you ate dinner on September 9, 2016? And how long did it take you to get to work on Thursday, February 23, 2017? Where were you on the afternoon of March 9, 2015?
You probably don’t know the answers to these questions — but Google might.
How? It’s thanks to a feature nestled away in your Google account called Location History. If you care about your privacy, you should probably check it out.
Location History is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a comprehensive history of locations you’ve visited, as tracked by your smartphone’s GPS. Think about that for a second. Every dinner round a friend’s house, every boring commute, every late-night takeaway run — any time you went anywhere with your smartphone, it’s on there, going back years.
It powers some useful features in Google’s products, and many people keep it switched on for that reason. But in the process, you’re give a private company a staggering amount of information about your private life, for free.
Here’s how to see exactly how Google is tracking you — and how to switch it off you don’t feel comfortable with it…
Not sure if you've got Google Location History activated? Head on over to your 'Timeline' and check.
Timeline is a map that shows exactly where you've been on any given day stretching back as far as you've had the feature on. It's either extremely cool or extremely spooky, depending on your approach to online privacy.
You'll likely be asked if you want to activate Google Location History when you get a new phone or start a Google account, so if you don't recall switching it on, that's likely why.
Here's an example of it on desktop -- everywhere one of my colleagues went on October 20, 2016. (In Athens!)
They stayed at the Hotel Naxos Resort, leaving at 12:18, before walking 0.3 miles in the space of 24 minutes to Naxos ... the data is all this detailed.
(You can also view your location history on your smartphone, via the Google Maps app, as seen below.)
So why on Earth would you give Google access to track your every waking movement? Well, it's actually pretty useful.
It means the company's tech can learn the places you normally go, and the routes you normally take, letting it proactively give you place suggestions or traffic notifications when they might be helpful. Or you could use it to remember where you were on a given day, or find the address for somewhere you visited but didn't make a note of. On the flipside, Google can also use it to feed you customised adverts.
As Google continues to push its AI-powered virtual assistant, Google Assistant, this kind of context-driven information is going to get richer and richer.
But is it worth the privacy trade-off? That's up to you to decide.
If you're concerned about location-tracking -- but you don't want to deactivate Location History entirely -- you can delete specific entries from your Timeline. These can be individual journeys and visits, or entire days that you don't want Google knowing about.
If you weren't aware Google was tracking this information, or you've since decided you're no longer comfortable with it, you can deactivate the feature entirely. Just hit 'pause' in the bottom left of Timeline on desktop and keep it switched off, or deactivate it in your phone's settings.
There's also the option to delete your entire history of every location you've ever visited. It's irreversible, so make sure you're certain.
Note: Blocking Google Location History won't stop Google (or any other app you've given permission to) from accessing your location data when it needs or wants to. Google Maps, Uber, and so on will still all work. If you don't want apps tracking your location at all, you'll need to turn off your GPS, without which many apps can't function.
Google Location History is a litmus test for how people approach privacy online. Some are disturbed by the idea, and would never dream of letting a company gather that much information about then. For others, what you get in return is entirely reasonable.
What's important is that you're informed -- so you can make that decision for yourself.
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