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Posted on April 19, 2019

Google’s Runaway Location Tracking

While Facebook may be in the news regarding its privacy and security practices, another ghost in the machine lurks within Google’s location tracking services. In the future, we’ll most likely see another scandal in the mismanagement or loss of the personal location data of millions of users, if that hasn’t happened already.

Interestingly enough, Google itself lends to a particular amount of transparency regarding its use of location tracking services, found right in its options tab. The user is reminded that their data is only shared when you have the option for it turned on, though regardless of this, any photos you take on your Google Pixel device are automatically geotagged with where they are taken, hidden behind a wall of metadata that most users will ignore completely. Yet consumers have to ask, “Is hiding the information the same as protecting it?”

Google has already been a part of a security scandal, though this time it wasn’t necessarily data being given out to random strangers. Instead, Google was taking your location data even when you had it turned off. In 2018 it was revealed that other apps were also privy to this information, such as the Weather and Maps app, which will share your location as soon as you open them in order to roughly target where you are.

Google itself tells its users that these practices are used solely by the company to drive ad revenue and more effectively target users for ads that will interest them. What doesn’t bode well with consumers is that real time location data can be the most private of personal information. Even if the data is stored entirely by Google, that wealth of information is an attractive target to malicious actors. If user’s data was compromised or otherwise exposed to third parties, it would spell disaster.

In 2019, we have a different sort of scandal going on, one that is eerily reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. Due to the amount of location data Google has on all of its users, the company now has the means to dragnet for police departments across the country, and in fact, has already done so. Unfortunately for Google, the man that was apprehended using their location data services was not the perpetrator, thus the malicious actor ended up being the company itself, charging and innocent man with a crime simply for being close enough to the wrong place at the wrong time.

These frightening developments should shock anyone into recognizing the long term impacts of companies being unable to secure your personal data, whether through Google or Facebook. While the types of food you like and cars you buy aren’t necessarily the worst sort of thing for people to find, having them see where you are (or very nearly) is chilling.

Google offers only a few choice responses to the public regarding the security of its users’ data, but now there are real implications that they are facing on the legal front. The deceptive practices that encourage users to voluntarily share their location data is as onerous as collecting it discreetly in the first place.

Ideally, in the future, our personal information will be known only to us and to those with whom we choose to share it. There should no qualms about turning that collection off, nor any implied need to share in the first place. Whether it’s on social media or finding directions with Google Maps, no one company or individual should know where you are or what you’re doing. If the public continues to create angry scandal, perhaps soon these giant conglomerates will look more seriously into consumer protections.