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By now we all know that Google tracks most everything you do on your computer. Whether it’s through Google Search, Gmail, or even opening advertisements in webpages, Google knows what you are doing, when you are doing it, and who you are communicating with.
But most people think that if you use a Smartphone, then all – or most – of that tracking is gone. Well, it’s not.
Google’s location-hungry tentacles are quietly lurking behind some of the most innovative features of its Android mobile operating system. Once those tentacles latch on, phones using Android begin silently transmitting data back to the servers of Google, including everything from GPS coordinates to nearby wifi networks, barometric pressure, and even a guess at the phone-holder’s current activity. Although the product behind those transmissions is opt-in, for Android users it can be hard to avoid and even harder to understand.
While you may not have heard of it, “Location History” is used to power features like traffic predictions and restaurant recommendations. While it is not enabled on an Android phone by default—or even suggested to be turned on when setting up a new phone—activating Location History is subtly baked into setup for apps like Google Maps, Photos, the Google Assistant, and the primary Google Search app.
Research by online magazine Quartz suggests that Android’s Location History feature tracks more data than initially thought.
Location History “helps you get better results and recommendations on Google products” according to Google. It may be used to locate a missing phone, get traffic predictions, or recommendations based on places you have visited in the past.
While many Android users are probably aware that enabling the Location History on the device provides Google with location-based data, most probably don’t know what Google collects in detail.
Particularly worrying, to researchers is the fact that every Google app may access Location History data. And if anyone ever chooses to pay attention to the “permissions” an app asks for when it’s installed, it gets even scarier. Many non-Google apps require access to Location History for their own operation.
Quartz analyzed three Android devices from different manufacturers, the Google Pixel 2, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the Moto Z Droid. The researchers created a portable Internet-connected WiFi network designed to pick up any “all of the transmissions that the devices connected to it broadcast and received.”
The researchers removed the Sim cards and started to walk around with the devices to get a good sampling of the data that is recorded by the Location History feature.
The following information is transmitted to Google servers at regular intervals if Location History is enabled according to the analysis of the Quartz researchers:
- The type of movement, e.g., walking, biking or driving.
- The barometric pressure.
- Whether the device is connected to a wireless network.
- The MAC address of the connected WiFi network.
- The MAC access, signal strength, and frequency of all nearby wireless access points.
- The MAC address, identifier, type, and two measures of signal strength of every nearby Bluetooth beacon.
- The charge level of the battery and charge status.
- Battery voltage
- GPS coordinates of the device and accuracy information.
- GPS elevation and accuracy.
And that is just the basics. A longer, more personal, list is collected depending on which apps you use on a regular basis.
If Bluetooth is enabled, devices with Location History will pick up other Bluetooth enabled devices and submit the information to Google. This means that even if you have Location History disabled on your device or don’t use Android, Google may receive information about your whereabouts.
Google does, however, provide a support page to manage or delete the location history, and to turn off the location history on the device
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