SAN FRANCISCO: Google has been found to record users’ location history even when it has been explicitly instructed not to, an investigation by the Associated Press finds. The news illuminates a risk to brands engaging in location-based marketing without users’ consent.

This is according to an AP exclusive published by The New York Times, in which the organisation presents findings confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton University. Although Google is mostly upfront about the permissions users give, and location services are necessary for navigations, keeping a timeline – known as ‘Location History’ – of movements can impinge on people’s privacy. To mitigate against this, Google allows users to turn off Location History.

However, the investigation finds that even with Location History turned off, some Google apps store time-stamped location without asking for permission. The researchers found evidence of the practice on both Android and iOS devices.

“If you're going to allow users to turn off something called 'Location History,' then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off,” said Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist and former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement bureau. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”

Google argues that it is not doing anything underhand. “There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people's experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services,” a Google spokesperson said.

“We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.” Google added that to stop location markers being stored, users could turn off another setting called ‘Web and App Activity’, which will prevent any activity from being saved to a user’s Google account.

It’s not the first time that Google has faced scrutiny over its location privacy practices. In November of 2017, Quartz broke the news that Google was collecting Android users’ locations when those services had been turned off, by collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers.

Sourced from Associated Press, Quartz; additional content by WARC staff