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Google location data: what does Australian court ruling mean and how can I turn off my tracking history?

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Royce Kurmelovs and Naaman Zhou
·4-min read
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<span>Photograph: MITO images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: MITO images/Alamy

If you have ever used Google Maps on your phone without fiddling with the location settings, it goes without saying that the tech giant knows everywhere you’ve been. The really bad news is that even if you have previously tried to stop Google tracking your every movement, the company may have done so anyway.

On Friday the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) won a legal action in the federal court, which ruled that, thanks to a peculiar set-up that required a user to check “No” or “Do Not Collect” to both “Location History” and “Web & App Activity” on some Android and Pixel phones, someone who ticked “No” to just one would still end up being tracked.

We asked Dr Katharine Kemp, a legal academic from the University of New South Wales whose focus is consumer law, and the Australian cryptographer Vanessa Teague for their thoughts on the significance of the decision and how a person might go about securing their devices.

What does the ruling mean for you?

Kemp, an Apple user herself, says that for many consumers, today’s decision may not actually mean much, as the decision only related to Android users and Google has since updated the settings that formed the basis of the ACCC’s complaint.

Related: Google ‘partially’ misled consumers over collecting location data, Australian court finds

“In the bigger picture the consumers can feel better that the ACCC is taking some action to protect consumers where big tech companies take advantage of their privacy,” Kemp said.

Teague, meanwhile, said that while the ACCC was “right” to pursue Google over the confusing nature of the dual settings, sharing information with any large tech company was always a risk.

“Wifi and Bluetooth-based location services, including services like Google and Baidu, are inherently non-private – you’re sending your info to some big tech company and asking them where you are,” Teague says. “It’s not really meaningful to talk about privacy after that, though the companies vary in how shamelessly they share, sell or exploit the info.”

Still, Teague had some basic tips for how Android users may double check the settings on their phone.

Familiarise yourself with your account settings

The settings are different depending on which system you are running. On an Android phone, you will find your account privacy settings under the “Settings” tab. From there, find the “Accounts” section and select your Google account. Scroll down to the section tagged “Mange your data & personalization” and select it. This will offer a range of settings that you can review for various activities in order to prevent your location from being shared with Google.

Turn off Bluetooth scanning

Teague says it is a good idea to police other basic functions like Bluetooth. Unless you’re actively using it to play music through devices like wireless headphones, turn off the Bluetooth function and don’t let your phone automatically scan for Bluetooth connections as this can be used to track you. You can find this under the “Location” tab in the Settings section on an Android phone. Tap “Improve Accuracy” and you will have the option to stop your phone from letting apps use wifi and Bluetooth scanning.

The same can be achieved on iPhones by navigating to “Settings” then tapping “Privacy” and finding the “Location Settings” tab. From there you can turn off location settings for specific apps. Scrolling down further to “System Services” will allow you to find the “Significant Locations” function that logs a record of where you been. From here you can toggle it off.

Have download discipline

The final thing is small but important: have good download discipline. While changing your Google settings is a good start, third-party apps can also track you if you’re not careful. This is also true of any personal assistants such as Siri or Google Assistant and users should also be sure to check those settings.

Generally speaking, however, Teague says the rule is simple: don’t download random apps when you don’t need to and make sure not to give them permissions they shouldn’t have. Under the “Privacy” tab in settings you will find the “Permissions manager” tab, which will allow you to see which apps have what permissions. Tap on any app and you’ll be able to change the settings.