A recent story on title="TechCrunch">TechCrunch highlighted a little-known feature of Google's mapping services; the ability to record and display a daily history of your whereabouts. The feature is called Location History and is available via a web browser when you’re logged into your Google account. What you get is a Google Maps display that includes a calendar to specify the date for which you want to review your travels. An hourly graph is displayed below the map so that you can mouse over a specific time to see your location at that hour. Google even provides a play button that will automatically scroll through the timeline for you.
This location data is coming from your smartphone or tablet, of course. Google’s apps have the ability to periodically track your location, regardless of whether you’re actively using any of them. Location information is typically generated from cellular network towers, so any location in which you can receive a cell signal is a candidate for location reporting.
You don’t have to be a Google power user to understand why your location is a valuable commodity to the Internet giant. Several of Google’s services, from turn-by-turn navigation to weather, traffic and news updates, not to mention localized shopping searches, require your current location. And the functionality of Google Now – the company’s virtual personal assistant – is almost entirely dependent on location data.
The fact that Google is storing this data, associating it with your account and making it accessible to you in a user-friendly format is largely in character with the search giant’s approach to collecting and using user data. Location History itself grew out of an earlier – and since discontinued – Google service named Latitude, which allowed users to explicitly share their location with friends. Whether you view Location History as an intriguing tool or a significant threat to anonymity, depends on how you view the services-for-data barter that defines much of our current Internet use.
I’d argue though, that in this instance Google offers a useful blueprint for the balance companies should be striking between services and consumer privacy. For starters, the location services that make this all possible are an opt-in feature. If you’d rather not share your location data with Google, giving up some of the benefits of its services, you can turn off this capability. Indeed, when accessing Google Maps for the first time in your mobile browser, you’re presented with the choice of allowing Google to access your location. And on my iPhone and iPad I regularly get a pop-up dialog asking for permission to use my current location when I load the Google news site without being signed in to my Google account.
Google allows you a number of options for disabling its location tracking features. Lifehacker Australia offers a handy guide to doing just that on both Android and iOS devices. You can also access settings for all of your Google apps and accounts via a personal dashboard. And on the Location History site you can choose to delete all history, the data for a specific day or location. How long your data is retained on Google’s servers after you’ve hit the delete button is an open question. In response to a request, Google refused to give a specific time-frame, noting that this varies by service, with some allowing a grace period for users to recover data in the case of accidental deletion or an account that has hacked. If you’re wondering, in light of ongoing NSA revelations, about government access to your location data, a Google spokesperson confirmed via email that, “we require a search warrant from the government to compel us to provide location history that we may have.”
Let’s make no bones about it. Google’s most lucrative business model (advertising) depends on having as much information about you as possible. To encourage the sharing of this data, the company leverages it to provide services that most of us find useful, or increasingly, necessary. But in most instances you do have a choice over how much information you’re willing to share.