There’s a fierce battle now taking place over our privacy. On one side you have Apple, our staunchest defender, it says; what happens on an iPhone, stays on an iPhone, it says. On the other side you have Google and Facebook and the vast mobile marketing world. You don’t get all these “free” services for nothing, they say; we are harvesting your data to sell to you and influence you, they say. But don’t worry, they say, you can change your settings if you want, if you can be bothered, if you can find them.
This is all well understood, it’s the world of the smartphones (in the main) that run our lives, after all. But sometimes all this goes too far. Sometimes the balance between convenience and privacy is so far out of kilter that it needs a major course correction.
So it is with Google’s latest innovation—the “Insights” tab that has started appearing within Google Maps. This is Android only for now, but new features usually hit iPhones a little later. This enhanced view of your Timeline is “an estimate of places you may have been and routes you may have taken based on your location history.”
If you don’t mind storing your life on Google’s cloud, the new Insights tab means you can view all the places you’ve been, day by day, or see them by category. If you want Google to tell you that you spent 41 hours shopping last month, 35 hours on trains, 26 hours eating in bars and restaurants and only 4 hours walking—then you’re in luck—Google will capture this info, store it, mine it and show it to you on demand.
If this doesn’t sound like something you want or need, then disable or restrict Google’s location tracking. You don’t need to wait for Insights to hit your iPhone, you should check these settings anyway, such that no Timeline is being captured and stored.
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And while you might think you’ve disabled location tracking on your Google Account, beware, Google points out that “you may still have location data saved as part of your use of other Google sites, apps, and services. For example, location data may be saved as part of activity on Search and Google Maps when your Web & App Activity setting is on, and included in your photos, depending on your camera app settings.”
Location data isn’t your only issue, of course. Google Maps harvests a lot of other data, all of which it links back to your user and device identity, and your Google Account if you have one. Apple Maps is better set up from a privacy standpoint.
My advice to iPhone users is to opt for Apple Maps, it’s a more private alternative. Yes, there are some compromises, but Apple Maps has vastly improved.
If you do want to stick with Google Maps, then there is an Incognito Mode that you can enable. This will hobble some of the data-driven features options. No “commute” or location history or sharing or search history or completion suggestions, restrictions to Assistant in Navigation, no offline maps, no “your places.” But it will stop data being added to your Timeline. So, no data harvesting.
Google is clearly aware of the optics around its capturing so much location data, and points to the tools that allow users to disable or delete this data capture. In response to this story, the company told me “we build choice and transparency into all of our products. Location History powers some of our most helpful features… It’s never shared with third parties, and we use world-class anonymization technology.”
“Insights” has now started to roll out on Android devices by market and will likely come to your iPhone at some point. I don’t need to say that if you’ve spent the extra bucks to get an iPhone for its privacy and security, then enabling Google to track your life and store all that data on its cloud is probably not the wisest decision you’ll make.
But before iPhone users reading this become too complacent as to the differences between their phones and Androids, how many of you have checked the “secretive” Significant Location setting on your device? How many have heard of the setting or know where to find it? Not that many. It’s exceptionally well hidden.
“Significant locations is one of the features hidden within the privacy section,” ESET’s Jake Moore has warned. “I cannot think of a positive or useful reason why Apple would include this on any of their devices.”
Apple’s Significant Locations is similar to Google’s Timeline, albeit it captures seemingly arbitrary locations that the AI on the phone considers important. “Your iPhone and iCloud-connected devices,” the company explains, “will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you.”
Your home and office, favorite places to eat, shop and visit. It links to photo memories and calendar entries, dictating when you should “leave now.” It knows how you travel and how long you take to get there. Just like Google’s Timeline, it’s a data cache worthy of the best collections efforts of a major intel agency—right there on your iPhone.
The fact that the setting os so well hidden is very poor on Apple’s part. It’s a weird standout for the company that puts privacy so publicly first. This data is for your phone alone—unlike with Google’s Timeline. But, Google does provide clear reminders your location is being tracked and easy to reach tools to change this. Where Google falls down, just like Facebook, is that it’s not clear that location data can be derived from multiple different places requiring multiple settings changes.
“When you see all of your frequented locations in one list,” Moore says, “it is quite powerful at making you realize at what detail we are actually tracked. The level of accuracy seems rather invasive and it is also a reminder that Apple and Google’s tracking is a huge part of their business models. The more information they have on us, the more they can profile and target us so it is advised to look at the privacy settings and turn off location tracking where possible.”
I have advised users to disable Significant Locations before, which caused some concerns given Apple says it uses significant location data to optimize battery charging. But if your iPhone really needs to capture and store everywhere you go to a hidden database, just so that it can improve your battery life, then we have a serious issue.
As my colleague Kate O’Flaherty puts it on this week’s STC, the video on top of this story: “Why would anybody want to use any opt these features? Why would you want to collect all of your data detailing your location? There is no reason for this.”
There is another marked difference between your Timeline and your Significant Locations. Apple only stores its data on your iPhone and protects this with end-to-end encryption. But data in storage is data at risk—wherever that might be at rest. “When I used to investigate digital forensics for the police,” Moore told me. “This little known feature became extremely useful when searching for evidence on iPhones.”
And so, whether it’s Google’s or Apple’s “creepy” location tracking, ask yourself whether you need this, or is it just another step too far? I don’t let big tech capture my data in this way. And yet I don’t get lost, I remember where I like to eat, I don’t care how many hours I spent on trains last May—and my battery is working just fine.