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How to stop your Android phone from sharing your location with Google

Google Maps
Google Maps (Image credit: Android Central)

If you carry a cell phone — even a simple flip phone without any sort of real display — someone somewhere is tracking your location. Even if there is no SIM card inside, the phone is in constant contact with cellular towers as long as it's turned on and one or more are in range. When you add some smarts to the mix and use something like an Android phone, things get a little more complicated.

We can't help you hide your movements from carriers or cell towers because that's a little past the grey line between privacy and the law. But we can help you keep Google from knowing where you've been and when you were there — all you need to know is that the name of some settings might not mean what you think they mean.

Don't worry. We've got you covered.

Location History

My timeline over seven years.

My timeline over seven years.

The wording here has a lot of people confused. Don't feel bad if you're one of them because it's natural to think this means a place where the location of your phone is being kept and updated, and that turning it off should make it all stop. But that's not what this is, it's actually the name of a feature tied to your Google account.

Google has a nifty feature it calls a location timeline. You can check it out on your Android phone under the device location settings. What it does is show you a list of where your phone has been and when, and this can be turned into a really cool map that shows your movements over time. A lot of people want this sort of thing; it's convenient for keeping track of mileage and distance, and this data is part of what Google uses to make Maps more personalized for you.

You can turn this on and off at will (note that turning it off doesn't erase the data that's already there) and your location won't be saved into this history. But this is not a general location setting for any other app or purpose — it's simply there to manage your location timeline. Turning it off doesn't affect things like other apps knowing where you are, or localized search results, or anything else that may be requesting location data. You can see what apps want to use your location under the application permissions setting if you're curious.

Web and App Activity

This is where you can see what apps see when they want your location. Whenever any app on any device you are using while logged into your Google account is used, the data it collects and stores to your Google account is logged here. According to Google, this data is used to provide a better experience in Google's services.

Saves your activity on Google sites and apps to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.

Some of that data may be your location. It's important to know that you grant or revoke permission to access your location for each and every app individually, and this has nothing to do with the Location History setting on your account.

Taking control of all this

Knowing what's going on here is only half the battle and knowing how to stop it all is equally important. Here's what you need to know.

You can turn some or all of these settings off through the settings on your phone, but since they are account based you need to do it through the web. You can still use your phone to do it, just fire up your web browser and head to the Activity Controls page for your Google account.

The settings you need to know about are right at the top, labeled Web & App Activity and Location History and all you need to do to shut them down is toggle the blue switch. It's interesting to see what's been collected by opening the MANAGE ACTIVITY link for each. That's where you can clear the saved history of each category, but you don't need to do that to turn one or both off — just flick the switch.

But you do need to know what happens when you turn them off. Turning off Location History doesn't seem to affect much outside of Google Maps and apps or products like the Local Guides program that are tied to it. Of course, we have no idea what or how Google uses the data stored there so it could halt your favorite thing. You'll need to experiment here.

Turning off Web & App Activity does have a much larger impact. The first thing you'll notice (it even warns you) is that Google Assistant instantly becomes mostly useless. That's because it relies on knowing all about you to help you.

Other apps that depend on having some history about you stored will also work differently. You'll no longer get narrow and specific search results tailored to you. You'll notice shopping apps no longer notify you when you're at a local store. Basically, any app or service that was keeping tabs on how and when you do the things you do will become less functional, or possibly even stop working altogether.

Account based is not device based

One last thing to know that's also really important is that these settings are across all devices tied to your Google account. That means changing things on your phone's web browser also changes things on your tablet or Chromebook or PC. But only for your account.

If you have multiple accounts on any device, the other account isn't affected. You'll need to make the same changes on all accounts to stop all activity from being logged. The same applies if you share a device, like a Chromebook, with someone else. What happens on their account is still logged and tied to that device.

We're not suggesting that you hide everything you do from Google and try to stay incognito for all things. We just want you to know how you can keep location turned on so things like navigation apps work but keep the all-seeing Google eye from knowing about it.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

10 Comments
  • Very interesting and thank you for the info. It's amazing how many steps you have to go through in order to do this. The crazy thing is I thought that simply turning off location history was all I had to do. LoL #DontBeEvil LoL
  • Asking for a friend: before committing crimes, should they do everything in this article, or just leave their phone at home for alibi purposes?
  • I don't want to!!!
  • Wouldn't want to turn this off myself but at the end of the day, you're being tracked by your network provider anyway.
  • Nowadays you are being tracked on a daily basis by hundreds of companies, from the cellphone provider, the city and its traffic cameras, the credit cards, every store you purchase something from, every single app on your PC and phone, etc. Including news sites you read (yes Android Central, you do track us too) Google at least allows you to benefit from this data collection with many very useful features like this one, they not only profit from the data, they take it and make it work for you. If I had setting to hide I would probably do tons of crazy stuff to avoid all this tracking (and most certainly would not be using an android phone anyway), but as I don't I embrace the tracking and enjoy its usefulness..
  • Jerry is in total Google denial and is falsely pushing the narrative Google will not record your whereabouts. The associated press investigated, and found Google is still recording your movements even when you tell Google not to do so. Here is the AP article: http://business.financialpost.com/technology/personal-tech/ap-exclusive-...
  • Unless you're using a VPN, in most cases, your location can be roughly pinpointed using the IP address of any WiFi network you're connected to. Every single website you visit sees your IP address. There's no way around it. Even using a VPN, you are simply accessing the website from a second location, that of the VPN servers. The IP address of the VPN replaces the IP of the local WiFi network or that of your mobile network. On mobile networks (LTE) this is not as easy because the carrier doesn't necessarily change your IP address if you move to a different cell, and when it does, it may not assign the same address when you return to the same cell. State actors, Google, and other large data hungry companies have likely reverse engineered the IP assignment process for each carrier, so it's entirely possible that mobile is not much more location-anonymous. I'm also surprised that none of these articles have mentioned recording nearby WiFi networks and cross referencing them with a nationwide map of WiFi networks. In Google's case, the map is created and updated by the Streetview cars. Often the first process used by location services on either Android or iPhone is scanning for the WiFi networks in range and sending the SSID's and MAC addresses to the cloud. Android has a default setting that it will do WiFi roam scans even when WiFi is turned off. I'm not an iOS user, but I do know that iOS automatically turns WiFi back on shortly after it's manually turned off, so no much better even assuming iOS doesn't do roam scans when the WiFi switch is off. TLDR: Without a VPN, any website you visit will have at least a general idea of your location, usually at least as localized as the city/town level. It's not just Google's websites doing this. All websites you visit receive your IP every time you request information, and as such, your IP is associated with your activity on the site. However, Google stockpiling location information is more concerning because they know so much else about you and they can aggregate data across a much wider range of oft-used products. Web & App activity could be labeled better, but it contains so much more than just location information. I certainly wouldn't be against Google breaking out location data in an additional setting. Personally, given their the US carriers' history of handing over data in response to unprecedented, overreaching government requests, I'm much more worried about hiding from my carrier than Google. The carriers were under NDA, and putting up a legal fight would cut into profits, so they didn't bother. Google has much more to lose than any other company or entity if it is caught mishandling customer data.
  • Apple does the same thing they just make you think they are not...
  • The best way to stop Android from sharing location data with Google is to buy an iPhone 😏
  • Or get a normal non-smart phone, I know a few people who do not have smart phones, one do not have a mobile phone at all and have no interest in having one. One of of these non-smart phone owners only turn his phone on when he needs to use it. TBH, when my old Nexus went belly up,m I was having thoughts about getting a non-smart phone, but the thought of doing text on a tiny keypad again made me change my mind. Maybe next time I will get a Doro 6520.