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Stop Google from knowing every move you make

Stop Google from knowing every move you make
Denys Prykhodov / Shutterstock.com

If Google ever chooses a corporate anthem, I vote for "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, which includes the possibly sweet/possibly creepy promise "I'll be watching you." Two especially appropriate lines from the song are "every move you make" and "every step you take," because Google already has those down.

It's no secret that Google stores your location history. It pulls where you travel from the Google apps on your Android or Apple smartphone, or using Android's built-in location tracking. However, in the past it only stored the information for 30 days.

If you were interested in getting location-aware searches and other features, the 30-day time limit was a nice compromise between service and privacy. However, things have changed, especially if you use Google's personal digital assistant Google Now.

Understanding your Google Timeline

Google has updated its location history site and now calls it Timeline. You can find it at google.com/maps/timeline. To see your location history, you'll first need to be signed in to your Google Account. But, once you do, prepare for a shock.

Right away, you'll see dots showing everywhere you've been. There's no expiration limit, so there could be months or years of tracking data available. You can then zoom in on each dot for more information. If you want to narrow down your locations by time period, the controls are at the top of the page.

There's also an overview panel at the bottom of the screen that tells you how many places have been logged, and gives a summary of all the places you’ve traveled outside your usual area. If you scroll horizontally in the overview panel, you'll see the option for pausing location history and editing saved places like work and home.

The promise Google can’t keep

When it comes to location tracking, Google explains, "Your location is reported by your mobile device and only you can see it." But, that’s not a promise the company can make. What it fails to warn you about is the fact that anyone using your browser can see your location history too, as long as you’re logged in to your Google Account.

There are tons of applications that use Google Accounts, and many people don’t even realize it. Gmail and Google Music are two of the more obvious ones. But, what about products Google simply owns, like YouTube? If you're logged in on any of these sites, someone using your browser can basically spy on you.

That's why it's always a good idea to sign out of Google and any of its sites after using them on public and shared computers. Otherwise, a snooping significant other, friend or stalker will have a field day. You can also set up your own password-protected account and lock it whenever you step away from the computer.

Another way Google can track you is through your photos. If you upload images into the new Google Photos service, they'll show up in Timeline and show the location where they were taken.

Beyond location tracking

Now, you might be thinking that a complete history of your locations isn't so bad. However, Google is keeping track of a lot more than where you hung out for a bit.

Go back to the calendar tools at the top of the Timeline page. If you choose a year, it will show you all the location data for that year. If you choose a year and month, it will show you the location data for that year and month. However, if you select a specific day, you'll see something scary. Your full day's itinerary will be detailed out, including what times you were at each location and the route you took to get there.

It isn't just the routes you take in your car either. I regularly go jogging, and when I look at my location history for one of my jogging days, I can see the exact path I took around the neighborhood. It's a little creepy.

How to stop it

The fact that Google is tracking your every move is concerning to a lot of people. But, the good news is, it’s an easy setting to change. To turn off Google's location history, you’ll first need to log in to your Google account and go to your Timeline. Once there, follow these steps:

1. Click the gear icon in the lower-right corner of the map.
2. Click “Pause Location History.”
3. Once you’ve paused this tracking setting, you can then click, “Delete All Location History,” as an extra precaution.

You can also turn off location tracking on your smartphone. There are a few minor differences between iPhone and Android, but the general process is the same.

1. Go to the Google Search app, tap your profile picture and choose “Settings.”
2. Tap “Privacy,” then “Location”
3. Slide "Location reporting" off. Note: You can also tap "Location history" to delete what it's already stored.

If you’re still worried about Google's privacy-invading features after turning location tracking off, I recommend trying these three search sites that respect your privacy and get a more private alternative to Google Maps for Android and Apple.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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