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Google’s tracking you in a way you had no idea existed

Google can pull off some impressive tricks, such as correctly guessing what type of information you want in a search before you finish asking, showing you news you’re interested in, letting you know when there’s heavy traffic on the way to your usual Friday night hangout spot, and plenty more. However, the trade-off is that Google has to know a lot about you.

It’s a trade-off many people don’t want to make, especially when you get into areas like your smartphone being able to recognize you from your walk and voice. Of course, that’s in the future, but what we’re going to reveal today might already be more than you’re comfortable with.

It’s no secret that Google monitors and stores a lot of information about you, such as your search history. It does this for two reasons: service improvement and targeted advertising. Unfortunately, they’re tied together.

In other words, you have to be comfortable with Google knowing a lot about you if you want it to help without you asking.

We’ve talked about Google location tracking in the past. It used to be Google would store your location history for 30 days. This information came from Google apps on your Android or Apple smartphone, or Android’s built-in location tracking.

Tip within a tip: Want to stop Google from collecting your data? Click here and learn the settings you need to change now to protect your privacy while browsing

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 seem to have changed, especially if you use Google’s personal digital assistant Google Now. You might not know that Google has made a few changes, some of which are going to give you pause.

First, Google has updated its location history site and now calls it Timeline. It even changed the address. You can find it at https://www.google.com/maps/timeline. You’ll need to be signed in to your Google Account to see your location history. Once you do, you’ll see something like this:

Timeline1

To start, you’ll see dots showing you everywhere you’ve been while it’s been recording. You can 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.

There’s an overview panel at the bottom of the screen telling you how many places are logged and your trips (which are places you go outside your normal location area). If you scroll horizontally, you’ll see the option for pausing location history and saved places like work and home, as seen below.

Timeline2

You’ll notice that above the Pause Location History button, Google explains, “Your location is reported by your mobile device and only you can see it.” It doesn’t spell out that anyone using your browser can see it too, as long as you haven’t logged out of your Google Account.

Remember that Google Accounts are used for Gmail, YouTube, Google Music and other Google services as well. So if you’re logged in on any of these Google sites, someone using your browser can pull your location information as well.

Remember to always 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.

Of course, we’re sure this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. However, what we’re about to show you is a whole other ballgame.

Let’s 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 get not just location data, but when you were there and the routes you took to get there.

Timeline4

You can see from the above image the path the author took while running weekend errands. It shows locations, times, driving times and even the path taken. Plus it even includes the location and path of a walk the author took in the evening (that’s the light blue line).

Even if you’re OK with Google knowing your locations, looking through your past movements feels a bit creepy. But wait, it gets a little creepier.

Google actually wants you to help it improve. As an example, Google isn’t always accurate with its location, so any of the locations are editable. In the image above, the first stop is listed as the general “Ahwatukee,” instead of a specific store.

If you want a more accurate location history for better predictive service in the future, you can click on any location and tell Google exactly where you went. That lets Google Maps guess where you want to drive before you tell it.

Google will also try to guess what mode of transportation you took based on your speed. If it guessed “Driving” and you really took public transit, you can adjust that as well. Knowing what kind of transportation you take lets Google give you more accurate navigation estimates and traffic warnings.

Of course, that’s not quite the end of it. As you’re poking around your location history, you might notice something else pulled from another Google product.

If you’ve uploaded photos to Google Photos, they’ll show up in the Timeline as well. So if you took pictures at a friend’s house, they’ll show up in your Timeline on the day taken under the location where they were taken.

Timeline5

If you aren’t comfortable with that, you can delete the photos from the Timeline. This will remove them from the Timeline without removing them from Google Photos or your gadget.

Timeline6

Simply hover your mouse over the photo, click the gray checkmark to turn it blue and then click the “Remove X Photos” button. Unfortunately, to do this for every photo, you will need to go find them manually. You could also remove them from Google Photos or turn off Google’s location history entirely. At this point, you’re probably ready to learn how to accomplish that last one.

To turn off Google’s location history, go to the Timeline page and click the gear icon in the lower-right corner of the map. From here you can Pause Location History and Delete all Location History. You’ll want to pause first and then delete.

Timeline3

If you just want to delete a single day of locations, go to that day and click the trash can in the upper-right corner.

Timeline7

If you want, you can also turn off location tracking on your smartphone.

On an iPhone, go to the Google Search app, tap your profile picture and choose Settings. Then tap Privacy >> Location and slide “Location reporting” off. You can also tap “Location history” to delete what it’s already stored. You can also manage what location information Google apps can have in the Settings >> Location Services area.

For Android, go to Settings >> Location >> Google Location history and turn it Off. You can also tap the “Delete Location History” button at the bottom of the screen to delete stored locations.

Google can pull off some impressive tricks, but it requires that you give it a lot of personal information. While you can limit the information Google has, what if you just want to get away from it entirely? Try these three search sites that respect your privacy.

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