Google has updated its Location History help pages after the Associated Press reported that the search giant still tracked users even after they’d turned off location services on their phones. Google told the AP: “There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including Location History, Web and App Activity and through device-level Location Services.”
Other services too have come under fire in the past for tracking users even when they’re not using the app: last year Uber was forced to limit how much it tracked its users after it became clear that it continued to keep tabs on people even after they’d closed down the app.
If you want to keep Google from tracking you, here’s how to rein in the search giant’s oversight.
In a browser
Go to https://myaccount.google.com/ and in the left-hand column, click on Activity Controls.
On the next screen, toggle the Web & App Activity button off, and untick Include Chrome history and activity from sites, apps and devices that use Google services.
Underneath that, toggle off the Location History button. Google will ask if you’re sure, and warn you that many of its services won’t work very well with this turned off: if you use the Google assistant when you’re out and about to find the nearest chemist, for example, it won’t be able to do that for you.
On an Android phone or tablet
Go to the Settings app, and then find Location. Be warned: this could be slightly different for your phone as manufacturers and different versions of Android implement this rather inconsistently: our instructions and screengrabs are from the latest version of Android – known as Android Pie – on a Google Pixel 2 XL.
On the Pixel 2 XL, Location is bundled with Security on the first screen you see when you open the Settings app. (On other phones such as the OnePlus 6, for example, Location is a standalone setting.)
On the next screen, scroll down to Privacy and tap Location, and then toggle off the Use location button at the top of the screen.
You’ll also see which apps have recently requested your location. In this screengrab, Citymapper was among the apps that had recently checked where I was. If you want to turn off an app’s access to your location, tap on that app and tap Permissions, where you’ll be able to toggle off the Location switch.
Think carefully about which apps you’re happy to give those permissions to: Citymapper’s usefulness, for example, would be somewhat hamstrung if you turn it off because it wouldn't be able to work out the route from where you are to your destination without you manually telling it.
Turn off Location History
You’re not quite done yet, though. Google Location History is used to create your Timeline, which you can access through Google Maps, either in the browser or on your device. The timeline gives you a pretty accurate history of where you’ve been on each day: many people find it useful to have it turned on as an aide-memoire or to help them put together expenses claims for mileage, for example. However, you might decide you don’t like it and would rather turn it off.
To turn off Location History from the Settings screen, tap on Security and Location again, then scroll down to Location and then on the next screen, tap on Advanced to expand that menu. Then tap on Google Location History, and on the next screen, toggle the Use Location History switch to off.
From that screen you’ll also be able to turn off Location History on any other Android devices you have.
On an iPhone or iPad
Apple’s iOS gives you very granular control over how apps – not just Google services – track your location, and it’s easy to find and change the settings.
On your iPhone or iPad, go to the Settings app, then scroll down to Privacy and tap that.
Location Services is at the top of the list – tap that, and then on the next screen you’ll see how each app uses your location.
There are three options for Google Maps: Never, While Using, and Always. You’ll see in the right-hand column which is currently set: if you want to change that, tap on Google Maps and change it on the next screen.
You can check how other apps use your location while you’re in the Settings, too.
Bear in mind that once you've turned these all off, Google Maps and other apps will pop asking you for permission to access your location if it would help their functions. It's up to you to choose whether you grant permission again.