Technology Untangled: Yes, they really are tracking your every move

July 27, 2016

technology-bourIn my last article, I alerted you to some of the issues involving email privacy and encryption. Today’s article will look at another area of concern regarding privacy: smartphone location tracking and activity logging.

Most people are aware that their smartphone includes a GPS locator feature. This technology makes the driving directions app so practical and useful. It turns out that many other apps also make use of that location data. Today many of us are simply used to — or at least resigned to the idea of — continually carrying around a personal homing beacon. While the locator can be turned off, the convenience offered outweighs the concern about loss of privacy; but be aware that much more information is being gathered, recorded and retained than you might expect.

A hidden feature on your phone makes use of the locator technology in a startling way. The feature, Location History, is tracking your every move.

This first came to my attention when I noticed that the Google Maps app on my phone was displaying extra information along the routes I was driving. It was providing identifying pinpoints for places I had previously visited. For example, how did it decide to add a locator for Sherwin Williams? I stopped there once to check prices for some deck stain. On the one hand, it was rather helpful to have the extra navigational reference points pop up on the driving map, especially for parts of town I don’t visit on a regular basis. On the other hand, it was rather creepy that my phone “knew” I had been to the paint store. Who else knew that now? Was this helpful, insidious, or a little bit of both?

I researched further and learned that the location history tracking on an Android phone is disturbingly detailed. It includes a calendar history with a record of your daily travels, along with a route map including the time, location and duration of visit for places you have been. It also logs how many miles you drive and how long you drive each day.

You can view your history by going to Settings, Location, Google Location History, View/Manage. One history map shows a dot for every location you have visited over any time/date range you choose. Another map can show your exact driving route for any given day along with all your stops. While there is an option to turn off the Location History feature as well as a button to delete location history, I am troubled by the fact that this history gathering is turned on by default. I expect this is a feature many lawyers and investigators would like to keep secret since this type of tracking is often critical for divorce cases and criminal matters.

The iPhone has a similar feature. To find it and to turn it off, go to Settings, Privacy, Location Services. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the list for System Services, then Frequent Locations.

It is no secret that Google likes to collect data on its users. Another feature recently introduced portrays in an almost shocking manner how much data Google has on you. Google My Activity (myactivity.google.com) is a new site that shows users in one accessible collection all the different ways Google is collecting data on each person with a Google ID. If you have an Android phone, you do have a Google ID, whether you use it actively or not. You had to create one when the phone was initialized.

Not only did My Activity retain the history of all my Google searches, YouTube videos and web pages visited, it even retained the recordings of my voice clips for different voice searches I initialized with the “OK Google” hands-free commands I spoke into my phone! Why would they do that?

I scrolled back only several months, but from what I can gather, this data reaches back as far as I want to go. I assume that means back to the day when I created my Google ID with my first smartphone years ago.

When you log on to the My Activity site, Google reassures you that “only you can see this data.” Well, only you ... and ALL of Google. I think what they mean is that your data is encrypted and that they do not sell your info to third-party sites. How comforting. They will however entertain requests for user data from government and law enforcement agencies.

So, even if you are fastidious about clearing your browsing history, Google still knows all the sites you have searched for and visited while logged on with your Google ID. That is one of the reasons I use the more private StartPage.com as my primary search engine on my computers. However, out of convenience, I often use the Google search services because they are easily accessible on my phone.

There are in fact options to change your security and privacy settings and to delete the history Google has collected, as well as to opt out of the activity-collecting system. They are buried deep in the options settings. The real point, again, is that all that data tracking and history collection is set to “on” as the default.

We are clearly giving up some privacy in exchange for all the convenience today’s technology offers, and it is up to each of us to decide how to strike that balance between convenience and privacy.•


Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.


Recent Articles by Stephen Bour