It’s National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM) and this week’s theme is simple steps to online safety. Here’s a simple step for you: see if you have Google’s Your Timeline turned on and, if you do, switch it off.
Google’s Your Timeline
Using GPS, Wi-Fi and cell tower data, Google’s Your Timeline can paint a very accurate picture of your daily life. If you’ve got it switched on, it stores every step you take and everywhere you go.
And the thing is, lots of people seem to have it switched on without even realising, including me, and my favourite hats come in tinfoil.
I was surprised it had slipped past me so I started asking other people if they had it switched on too. More often than not, without making a conscious decision to let Google follow them around, they had.
In the end I decided to ask 20 people at random and write down the answers. The result of my short, non-scientific survey? 95% of the people I asked – a mixture of people in technical and non-technical roles – had location history, or its slightly less obnoxious iPhone equivalent Frequent Locations (Significant Locations in iOS 11), turned on, tracking their every step, without realising.
Check for yourself. On Android it’s under Settings > Location > Google Location History.
It’s your Timeline (and Google’s)
So what exactly is Google Timeline? Google says: “Your timeline in Google Maps helps you find the places you’ve been and the routes you’ve travelled. Your timeline is private, so only you can see it.”
Only you. And Google.
Google’s reasoning for the timeline feature is that, if you want to remember the name of that bar or café you visited yesterday, last week, last month, last year… you can simply visit Your Timeline. The technology behind this is impressive, but the privacy and security implications are, for some, quite terrifying.
Where you go says everything about you: where you live, where you work, where you hang out, the places you visit, how often and at what time. If you’re a frequent visitor to your local hospital’s cancer clinic, Google knows. If you’re having an affair, it’s in there. If you’re a courier moving large amounts of cash, that data is being shared over the internet and stored in a data centre somewhere. If you’re in the military or the police it knows where you’re stationed and, if you’re moving, your direction of travel.
Even if the data were stored anonymously (and it isn’t clear if it is or not) that would be cold comfort. Anonymous data has a way of being less anonymous than you think, and the more anonymous data you have, the easier it is to unmask the individuals involved.
So what does Google know?
To discover what Google Timeline knows about me, and you, I removed my tinfoil hat and opted to let it store my location history again.
Here’s a journey from Oxford to London by car (indicated by the dark blue line) that’s been accurately tracked to the point of tagging me at a service station I visited en-route.
Once in densely populated South London, using the telephone masts, local Wi-Fi and my phone’s GPS, Your Timeline accurately plotted my movements. The colour of the tracking goes from dark blue to light blue as I change speed from driving to walking.
After accurately tracking my taxi journey into Clapham, Google Timeline then has a go at tagging me in a restaurant, Café Sol. Google will use this data to add to publicly available information such as “Popular Times”, shown for Café Sol below:
Google provides the following statement in its support documentation on the anonymity of this data:
To determine popular times and visit duration, Google uses aggregated and anonymised data from users who have opted in to Google Location History.
My memories of the evening are mildly hazy, but Google Timeline can tell me exactly what I did and where I went.
I’m not too bothered about Google using my boozy night for helpful data research, but it isn’t about one night. It’s about every day and every night and the pattern of my daily life. It’s about all this data being stored and accessible by… I don’t know who, now and in the future.
Google will store this data for years, as you can see in my screenshot below.
So how did I, and almost all the people I asked at random, end up with Location History turned on?
The option appears when you set up Google Now. For me that happened after a factory reset. When you’re busy clicking ‘next’, ‘next’, ‘finish’ and don’t have two hours to spend reading everything on screen, it’s easy to miss:
My tinfoil hat is back on now.
On Android 7 it was as simple as going to Settings > Location (under personal) > Google Location History and selecting ‘off’. For comprehensive details on switching off and deleting your location history, go to Google’s Manage or delete your Location History page.
Apple iPhones have a similar feature hidden deep within their settings. Go to Privacy > Location Services >System Services > Frequent Locations.
31 comments on “The Google tracking feature you didn’t know you’d switched on”
I always knew this setting was there, I choose to have it enabled because of Google rewards but I will be disabling it and deleting my history. Some of my friends had no idea it was there. Both android and iPhone user’s.
The trouble is so much location data has already been logged, so i presume that even if you switch it off now, Google, Apple and others already have so much data, we will now have to make SAR’s and ask them to remove this data from their databases and systems in accordance with GDPR, however can we truly know if this will be done until some breach uncovers that it has not been?
I didn’t know about Location History until this article. Switched it off yesterday.
Went for a rainy run last night and got a prompt *this morning* to post photos at a nearby business (I’d passed maybe half a mile from it).
Your mileage (har) may vary.
Big bother is watching. Not to help us, just to milk us for money and keep track of us for the government(s) when they ask. (you didn’t think all the tech that went into this was for giggles did you?)
You’re not paranoid, they are watching – “all” – the – time. So sure, you’re more interesting than you thought, maybe..
Very few of us are that interesting. We need to get over ourselves.
It’s not so much that they say, “I wonder if Mahhn, Ahmen, and Bryan are hanging out today.”
“How do we best monetize the interests, hobbies, physical movements, and digital habits of users 4582344356897, 3412871348766, and 789342786234768?”
What makes you think that switching off timeline stops the company I call Ooogle from recording it?
We only know if stops them from DISPLAYING it !!!
Exactly. The more you research, the more you realise that the only wise assumption is that there is ZERO privacy and act accordingly. If you don’t want (lets just call them) “the powers that be” to know where you are going, leave your phone at home – turned on. You also have to assume EVERYTHING, encrypted or not, that you do on a computer/phone is NOT private. I lead a terribly boring life, but I resent being tagged and followed electronically.
Two hours to read that tiny bit? Your school failed you. I have turned it on, but it was a deliberate choice, not by accident.
A, that “two hours” is a figure of speech (I read it that way); B, it’s not just “that tiny bit”, it’s every “tiny bit”on every screen that you pass through along the way; C, if you want to be certain, it’s also the details from every twist and turn of “Learn more” links that you see as well. (There is an example of such a link in the image above.)
You’ve actually got a very good point! Perhaps this perception of terms and conditions and licensing agreements being too tough and cumbersome to read is a wrong and an outdated view.. something that perhaps I’ve done a disservice to you in embellishing. Perhaps if more people had your mind set we wouldn’t be getting caught out as much..
In my defence on the 2 hour time period, I was including the learn more links (like Mr Anonymous had caught onto) and also the other privacy notices you have to accept when setting up or factory resetting an android phone. But yes you’re right I’m a slow reader :).
So, the lesson learnt here is, make the time to read terms and conditions and privacy notices. Thank you for your comments sir and keep them coming… Always good to see security from a different perspective.
Thankfully, my tinfoil hat is securely fastened. I discovered this a year ago and have been regularly checking to make sure my settings stay off. Is it just me or does anyone think that the default privacy setting should be off for everyone and only enabled by clearly explaining what the user is enabling?
Opt-out is all wrong. The internet and all that is therein should be opt-in as a matter of default, decency and decree. “There should be a law about it.”
the problem, of course, is that even with nothing being stored where we can see it, Oogle can track us and keep those records secure FROM US. As they recently admitted.
Most phones this has to be manually enabled. Only on the Nexus/Pixel breed do I believe it’s nearly a default. And of all the people I know that chose own one of those phones, none was oblivious to it. It’s not about being a techie or privacy snob, it’s about knowing how to use a phone.
On iOS 11, I don’t find a Frequent Locations. Maybe they renamed it to Significant Locations?
Yep. That’s the one I saw as well. Turned it off.
Hi Bill, That’s right, I just double checked on an IOS 11 mobile and can see that frequent locations has indeed now changed to Significant Locations. I also noticed that in order to get into Significant Locations you need to verify your ID via TouchID, can you see the same? If so that’s a step in the right direction in my opinion.
I used touch id to access my phone which was in standby but I did not get asked again when I turned off the settings strange.
It should be noted that, unlike GoOgle, on iOS the data is only stored locally on your device and not on Apple’s servers (aka, “the cloud”).
“Frequent Locations: To learn places that are significant to you, your iOS device will keep track of places you’ve recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them. This data is kept solely on your device and won’t be sent to Apple without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing.”
Thank you for that information. It was really useful.
Curious. On my Android phone has two buttons. In the header at the top, there’s a slider labelled Location History and it’s On.
Just below it, in the body, it is stated:
Location last reported Feb. 21, 2017.
and there;s a slider button which is off.
If it’s reporting me once every nine months, I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
Hey Laurence, by having the top option of Location History turned on, you’ve essentially not paused Google’s your timeline. By having the option of location history switched off on your device, it’s not tracking your devices every move by default whenever location services are active. By having location history switched off on this device you’re essentially only monitoring journeys where you agree to a google service having your location. An example of this would be if you use google maps to get from A to B. I can imagine that in Feb you probably used Google Maps for directions. If you log into Google’s Your Timeline, you should be able to see what journey it was exactly that this was taken from.
I hope this helps?
Why worry, if you’ve got nothing to hide?!? I only turn it off when I visit places I don’t want Google to know about. I think it’s great to look look at the timeline, and see where I was on a particular day. Also should I ever be accused of a crime, I have google to help me, right?!?
A wise man once said “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
I’m not sure this shouldn’t have been expected or exactly what the problem is. Don’t get me wrong I’m a Lineage user who doesn’t have the phone associated with a Google account, but how is this any different from the cell phone towers tracking your phone or for that matter any other App you have installed, like Facebook? Let’s face it, if you have the data and WiFi networks on and an App can access the internet then it will log where and when you connected too. It’s not just Google doing this. The only difference is Google allows you to view the creepy data they are collecting. Could you imagine if Facebook revealed what it knew about you…..
If anyone was particularly bothered about this then the simple answer is to leave the phone behind and even then you will be tracked by number plate recognition and facial recognition software.
The only way to defeat this is to pass a law which requires your mandatory consent to be tracked in any possible way, and since that isn’t likely to happen then I’m afraid it is “Get used to it”.
You could always start a grass roots campaign for privacy, get some celebs on board, hire some genius programers, create a new mesh network which operates device to device, remove the baseband backdoor, apply whitelisting to Apps as opposed to blacklisting, and temporarily defeat a lot of tracking, and then again that sounds like a lot of work and that new reality show looks interesting on the TV…. Who cares! That is until someone abuses the system against them and then they wake up abruptly to their whole life falling apart. People forget their digital personas are the real person and not the bag of meat associated with the persona. They’re easily interchanged.
Great article. More like this, please. And more by this author.
Interesting article, You can add one more (IT) victim to your survey. I thought I had deactivated that feature on my tablet but I was wrong. Thanks for the warning.
This feature has never been ‘secret’ or ‘stashed away’. The permissions screen is dumbed down to Twitter level sound bites. In fact, a lot of Google Now (Assistant) pre-fetching information for your feed is based off of location history. It is an awesome feature (if you don’t mind big brother Google).
Google even periodically sends emails about location history being active. Anyone who missed it for such a long time should give a serious look into how they accept terms and conditions.