Location reporting

Is Google following your phone everywhere it goes? Sure — but only if you let it.

Every now and again a story hits the blogosphere reporting how Google is automatically tracking your location on your Android phone (or your iPhone), and how you can see proof of this by visiting a certain website and viewing the minutiae of your daily movements.

So is Google really keeping tabs where you go with your smartphone? Well, that depends on whether you gave it permission to do so. And if you're not comfortable with all your location data being stored by Google, it's easy to opt out.

Read on for a FUD-free explanation of location tracking in Google services.

Reporting and storing your location

At the heart of this issue are two Google features — Location Reporting and Location History.

  • Location Reporting is a toggle on each individual device tied to your Google account. It's switched off until you tell it otherwise; if you turn it on — for example, when first opening Google Maps and OKing the message asking to periodically store your location — your phone will report its location back to Google every so often.

  • Location History is a toggle on your Google account that affects all devices. If enabled, it lets Google store a record of all your location data from all your devices over time. As with Location Reporting, it's turned off until you enable it — again, most likely by approving Google Maps' request to store your location. You can disable Location History and keep Location Reporting switched on, but doing so may affect services like Google Now.

Google lets you view everything it collects on the web at maps.google.com/locationhistory.

Nexus 4 - location settings with new account

What happens when you set up a new Android phone

If you're setting up a new device with a new Google account, both Location History and Location Reporting are disabled.

When you first start up a new Android smartphone and run through the initial setup, your phone defaults to having Location Reporting turned off. Whether Location History is turned on depends on if you've previously enabled it on another device using your Google account. If you haven't, it defaults to "off."

Or more simply: if you're setting up a new device with a new Google account, both Location History and Location Reporting are disabled until you tell Google otherwise.

There are a few ways of granting Google access to this stuff. You can manually enable both settings under Google Settings > Google Location Reporting. Or if you start up Google Maps or Google Now, you'll need to opt into Location Reporting and Location History to get the most out of these services. (Though for Maps you can skip this step and still use all the app's basic features.)

Google Maps

When you first start Google Maps and accept the terms of use, you'll come across the "Enhance your Google Maps experience" screen, shown above. The "Learn more" link goes to Google's support site, which explains that you're about to enable Location Reporting and Location History. It also tells you that other Google apps may access this data:

For example, Google Maps may use it to improve your search results based on the places that you've visited.

The explanation given for Google Now is a bit wordier, but for our purposes the end result is the same — Location Reporting and Location History are enabled if you opt in. (Google Now, of course, also gets access to a bunch of other stuff connected to your Google account, including Gmail and your calendar.)

Google Now

Over on iOS, both features are opt-in, and found under Settings > Location History within Google's apps.

Why does Google need this stuff?

Google operates many location-based services, particularly on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. For these services to work best, they need access to your location data — and in some cases, a history of where you've been in the past.

Google Now gives you directions to places you've frequented in the past. Google Maps might store places you've been to recently and use them to show more relevant search results. Same deal with Google+ stories, which draws on historic location data to build a timeline of vacations and other trips.

What Google won't do is pass on this info to marketers without asking you. Per the Google Now explainer:

Google won't share your location history with other users or marketers without your permission.

Location history

How to opt out, or delete your Google location history

On Android devices, you can go to Google Settings > Google Location Reporting and use the toggles next to Location Reporting and Location History to turn these off. Under Location History you'll also see a big button to delete all your account's location history.

You can also view your location history on the web by signing in at maps.google.com/locationhistory. From there you can see what info Google has on your movements, remove individual locations or delete all your location history.

It's up to you to decide

Google isn't doing anything automatically without consent.

The bottom line here is that Google isn't doing anything automatically without consent, nor is it hiding its location features behind miles of legalese. We're all used to clicking through disclaimer pages and agreeing to terms of use without reading through the fine print, but it's important to be aware of what you're agreeing to when you opt in. From Google's perspective, there's a balance to be found between providing enough information to users so that they can make an informed choice and not overwhelming them with technical details.

In the case of Google Maps, the initial screen provides a brief overview of what's going to happen if you opt in, and the follow-up link goes into more granular detail. Clearly Google would rather you opt in than not, but the important words are right there, up front: "Google needs to periodically store your location."

It's up to you to decide whether that's OK with you. If it is, you probably shouldn't be surprised to read that Google is indeed storing your location, and that that information is available on the web for you (and only you) to browse. If you think it crosses the "creepy" line, it's easy to opt out, and Google is pretty up-front about how and where you can do so.

You can see your own Google account's location history on the web at Google's location history site.

More: How to change your Android location settings

 

Reader comments

Understanding Google's Android location tracking

57 Comments

I don't mind that they track where I go. They use that information to help me and make my phone much more useful. I don't understand why certain people freak out over this or things like fb messenger.

Posted via Android Central App

Yeah I don't understand this either. I don't use Facebook period so that's why I don't have the app installed on my phone. People tend to forget that they list your name address and phone number in the white pages unless you pay to have it private.

It mostly has to do with the way sensationalist new stories portray everything. Facebook and Google are both evil companies that have nothing better to do than call your friends and see where you've gone /s

Posted via Android Central App

I agree with you. I actually allowed for google to track my phone for security reasons, and also for me to obtain the most pertinent information.

If there's a problem, I simply shut it down. Not like I'm up to illegal activities and need to have my business obscured.... smh

Agree. As long as the company is trustworthy and has proven they don't abuse the information. It gets hairy, though, when the company is using the information it gathers to sell it or harm you.

Another thing I might add is the recent development that our own federal government has been collecting this location information and much, much more. That is just a plain travesty. Anyone who thinks the government is doing this for our benefit is just an ignorant fool. Nowhere in history has a powerful, large government been on the side of its citizens. They are illegally collecting and storing this information as a basis for a new level of power and control over us. We, as citizens, need to put it to a stop, but as long as these corrupt people, including our president, remain in power it will never happen.

Posted via Android Central App on the Moto X

Exactly my point... Why react and be afraid when most of us have simple ordinary lives unlike Edward Snowden and Julian Assange...

in preparation for Skynet, Google needs to collect data on all human movements

Google's massive servers will become self-aware in approximately 36 to 47 months.

Yea, and sites like this are clearly propaganda machines set in place by Google to disarm the public with their "logic" and "common sense". Hah! I'm not falling for it, the big G will have to find a different web to trap this fly in!

Posted via Android Central App

I have no issues whatsoever with letting my location history be used to enhance my maps experience. What I don't like is the drain on my battery. Have they improved on that at all? That's why I turned my location service is off in the first place.

How long has it been since you've had location on? About 6 months ago they pushed an update that really helped location battery drain. I run my phone on high Accuracy and do not notice significant drain like before.

Posted via the Android Central App

Been using Android since the Donut days and various low to high end devices, and have rarely had issues with any of Google's apps draining battery, then again I also rarely disable services on my devices so that might factor into it

I just want Google collect as much data as they can about me, the usefulness of Google services in my life are huge and i want more of it!

Posted via Android Central App

i turned off Location Reporting and Location History on my Nexus 5 because it had no value for me and i might as well save the battery hit. i keep the GPS on the battery saver setting. i suffer no hardships or sacrifices doing this.

i don't like or use Google Now because i don't like the randomness and unpredictability of information - i'd rather fetch specific information on demand as i need it and not be bombarded with random unsolicited distractions.

I agree. I love how Google Now remembers where I parked my car, tells me about driving times to work or to a place I have in my calendar as coming up, when I'm in a new area it gives me suggestions based on my interests and location, etc. If you don't have accurate locations or location history, it's useless.

In 19 months of using this phone I a couple of weeks of walkin to a bus stop. And a few spots of using maps in my house. Boo. Wanted to stalk myself.

Posted via Galaxy ace plus running Speedmod 2.5 with Xposed

People freak out about Google tracking you and totally forget that the cellular companies track you whether location is turned on or not. In the US it's been a law that all cell phones (dumb phones included) have GPS reporting via the phone company. Mostly this is used by 911 services (in the US at least and probably overseas too). The only way to never have your location tracked is to never use a cellular device at all.

When people don their tin foil hats about these topics, I just laugh at them because of exactly this reason

The only issue that I have is that Google Now keeps telling my wife when I go for a massage. If it would stop narc'ing me out I would be more apt to turn it on for good.

The illusion of privacy is funny to me. The phone company is tracking you. Your car with built in GPS is tracking you. Cameras on the street are tracking you. TIP......Stop doing stupid things you are afraid of being caught doing. I don"t care if they track me, just do it accurately. I left my house at 10 am with my wife. Got on our boat and went out to the islands to catch some sunshine. Didn't leave the island till 2:30. According to Google GPS location tracking i took two separate excursions back into town. Stop losing me. someday I might need to be found

Thank you... Thought I was the only one doing those kinds of multi tasks. Son had N7 he went this way, daughter had iPad she went that way, Chrome at home (Atlanta Ga) open. I'm at work and I been to Florida, UK, N Dakota and Brazil according to Google

I use the location history website to fill out my milage form for work every month. I make plenty of journeys and forger to log them, but luckily goog does the heavy lifting for me.
Also Google Now is pretty good at picking up on my routine, and is helpful with reminders and traffic assistance.

Posted via Android Central App

Similarly, I use the location history as an aid when I bill my consulting clients. Though I usually track my daily billable hours (on a Google Sheet, of course) I sometimes need to look back a month or two to see where I was on a certain day and how long I was there. Location History is very useful to me.

Posted via Android Central App

Helped me find my find phone today. Was out shopping and noticed it missing. A little worried because I had been all over the place. Last time I remembered having it was at church. Found wifi and fired up Google Device manager on my tablet. Sure enough, it was at church. I was fortunate because it doesn't always get wifi where it was and I don't have data turned on. Stopped back by on way home, told device manager to make it ring and found it right away.

I also like how you can share your location with someone if you choose. I use a widget to show my hubby's location on a map especially when he works away from home. I can tell if he's at work or out or back at his temporary residence so I can call him.

Maybe I'm just really dumb and I don't know it, but lately AC has been writing a lot of articles containing an acronym, "FUD", that I don't know the definition for. Will someone enlighten me?

Posted via Android Central App on the Moto X

Yes, the writers are just demonstrating their low intelligence by using stupid, snarky, hipsterish phrases instead of actually exlpaining what is fearful, uncertain or doubtful about Google collecting boatloads of information on you.

Android Central loves carrying water for gigantic corporations and their spying apparatus see: FaceBook permissions and how AC just minimizes peoples rightful concerns.

Google seems to think I spend a fair amount of time at a baptist church that's fairly local.

I'm actually in the rock pub across the road.

Posted via Android Central App

You don't have THAT much control because you can't use *any* features of Google Now without turning location history on. And that is a big shame. And to those saying Google Now is, indeed useless without location history- WRONG. There are *lots* of things it can and does do that do not require location tracking.

How would you propose Google implements a location-dependent feature without knowing your location?

Posted via Android Central App

Knowing my location on-demand when I fire up an app is one thing. Following me and keeping a history in the background is another. The former uses WAY less battery than the latter and is less sketchy.

I didn't say all Now features will work. I said not all Now features require Location History. There is no [good] reason [that I can think of] to force the user to choose between all or nothing regarding Now and Location History.

This article gave me the trick: enable Google Now, then disable Location Reporting. Location History will still be on, storing "location data from devices where you have enabled Location Reporting", so it shouldn't store anything.
You can also tap Delete Location History so that it doesn't even keep the data it collected for the couple seconds it was on.
And you'll be able to use some of Google Now's features.

Edit: it seems like you can turn off Location History altogether, Google Now still works.

That seems very interesting. So you are saying the Now doesn't turn itself off when you turn off Location History later. It makes one wonder if it really is turning off Location History or just ignoring that setting. There is no way we mere mortals can really know.

How do you configure multiple devices? What if i have 2 phones - and leave one at home? Report both different locations?

"The location history switch affects all devices" Alex wrote. How can i tell google "THIS is my main device - record only this"?

I actually rather like being able to track my location. The only thing that bothers me is that having both a tablet and smartphone, the tracker sometimes seems to jump back and forth between where I am with my smartphone and where my tablet is.
I've tried turning off the tracking on my tablet in the past, but it only turned off all tracking.

Google has appeared to improve the system because it doesn't jump back and forth as much anymore, but it would still be nice to not either turn one off or have separate tracking records ideally.

The devices are different, only makes sense imo.

I'm far less up in arms about this one than FB messenger. Google asks you when your phone is initially being setup, when you open Maps for the first time. People shouldn't be that surprised.

FBM is just trying to ram itself down your throat, with little choice on the matter, for features that I don't need.

The comment "Location Reporting and Location History are enabled if you opt in" is a little bit misleading. I have both OFF and still use Google Now daily. It gives me weather where I am, time to my next appointment, time to home/work (since those are separately saved locations), etc. The only thing I'm aware of that I might be missing is nearby offers and time to other frequented places. I also keep Location itself set to "battery saver" unless I actually need to navigate somewhere.

What bothers me the most with GOOGLE LOCATION HISTORY is the inaccuracy and the ''insane'' readings it provides at times. For instance, I have seen on my LOCATION HISTORY places where I NEVER WAS. If only whoever is responsible for the accuracy or lack there of these applications knew the amount of personal problems I have had because of these WRONG READINGS. I am a 42 year old mother, I wake up, take my daughter to school, go to work, come home and go to sleep. When I'm not either at home, at my daughter's school or at work, I go to very specific places such as the local library, the gym, the supermarket , Burger King with my kid, Toys R Us with my kid, a couple of clinics and that's the summary of my life. Why is ANDROID POINTING OUT PLACES WHERE I AM NOT? It will show crazy movements when the option ''show all points'' is checked. It shows me in places such as woods nearby my apartment in the middle of the night, in an entirely different neighborhood in the middle of the night, PLACES WHERE I NEVER WAS. The other day I was at the verge of desperation when I saw these insane readings because this has brought a lot of problems to me. SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN WHY switching from WIFI to 3G when I can't get internet will collaborate for this to happen. I want a thorough explanation from someone who is either a Technology Engineer or an expert of some sort in this area. There are reasons why I can't simply turn off location history. I want to be able to prove that I am where I am and not places where I never have been. I haven't gone to a club or a café socially in almost 10 years, but GOOGLE LOCATION HISTORY keeps saying I have been to places like that: hotels, restaurants and other places I have never set foot in. Please help.