Google's Location Info Failure Might Interest The FTC
from the do-better dept
Earlier this week, the Associated Press did a story revealing that even for Google users (on both Android and iPhone) who turned off location tracking Google was still tracking their location in some cases.
Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you?ve been. Google?s support page on the subject states: ?You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.?
That isn?t true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking. (It?s possible, although laborious, to delete it .)
For example, Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like ?chocolate chip cookies,? or ?kids science kits,? pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude ? accurate to the square foot ? and save it to your Google account.
If you squint, you can kind of see why this might have happened. Apps like Maps and weather more or less need your location info to work well (though, the search part is a bit more baffling). But, even so, this seems like a huge blunder by Google, a company that should absolutely know better. The latest, of course, is that Google has quietly moved to update the language that users see to “clarify” that some location data may still be recorded:
But its help page for the Location History setting now states: ?This setting does not affect other location services on your device.? It also acknowledges that ?some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.?
Previously, the page stated: ?With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.?
It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the location history feature is completely disconnected from the location specific data within these other apps. But, still, the average consumer is not going to realize that. Indeed, the tech savvy consumer is mostly unlikely to understand that. And Google’s new “clarification” isn’t really going to do a very good job actually clarifying this for people either. Google certainly has done a better job than a lot of other companies both in providing transparency about what data it collects on you and giving you controls to see that data, and delete some of it. But this was still a boneheaded move, and it’s simply ridiculous that someone at the company didn’t spot this issue and do something about it sooner.
As I’ve been pointing out for a while, a big part of why so many people are concerned about privacy on digital services is because those services have done a piss poor job of both informing users what’s happening, and giving them more control over the usage of their data. This kind of situation is even worse, in that under the guise of giving users control (a good thing), Google appears to have muddied the waters over what information it was actually collecting.
I also wonder if this will make the FTC’s ears perk up. There is still an FTC consent decree that binds the company with regards to certain privacy practices, and that includes that the company “shall not misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which consumers may exercise control over the collection, use, or disclosure of covered information.” And “covered information” includes “physical location.”
Would these practices count as misrepresenting the extent to which consumers could stop Google from collecting location info? It certainly seems like a case could be made that it does. There are many areas where it feels like people attack the big internet companies just because they’re big and easy targets. Sometimes those attacks are made without understanding the underlying issues. But sometimes, I’m amazed at how these companies fail to take a thorough look at their own practices. And this is one of those cases.