Does Google track you all the time? It depends.

There's a big splashy exclusive on AP today that looks at Google's location tracking habits, and how the company continues to collect location data even if the 'location history' feature is disabled on Google services:

The too long, didn't read of the story is that there's some confusion (and perhaps poor explaining on Google's part) about what the 'location history' feature actually does:

An app like Google Maps will remind you to allow access to location if you use it for navigating. If you agree to let it record your location over time, Google Maps will display that history for you in a ‚Äútimeline‚ÄĚ that maps out your daily movements.¬†Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you‚Äôve been. Google‚Äôs support page on the subject states: ‚ÄúYou can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.‚ÄĚ

The AP story says that "this isn't true" and with location history paused, Google apps still store your location. Well, yes, because location history the feature is the timeline, and not related to actually storing location history tied to something else the user performed.

This story is doing the rounds because it's scary, at least on the surface, but what's really going on is Google's failure to explain its own services clearly. Location data is relevant for many services to provide meaningful results, such as basic Google search, to surface relevant answers for the place you're standing. 

Most people don't understand the extent of such tracking well enough and would rightly assume flipping that switch disables all location services. To disable location being used at all while searching requires disabling web and app activity, but as Google points out, doing so renders many features less useful given they no longer have enough context. 

In technology, I believe there's a larger disconnect between the people that build these features and their actual users, more than anything else, that needs to be addressed. The average person struggles to understand the nuances of why Google would need location access, but wants search results to be relevant as well. 

The takeaway: It's true, Google is an advertising company and needs this data to target ads, but I'm not convinced that it's as nefarious as it appears. The company could go a long way to better explain why it's using location data, but perhaps just getting better at being open about what's tracked would help.


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