Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Google Is Tracking My Location in Real Time

A week ago today, when I attempted to sign in to Blogger to write my post in this blog, Google asked for permission to do something no one else had ever suggested to do. Google wanted to track my location in real time and pass that information along to unspecified third parties (i.e., anyone in the world). I would have assumed those third parties would be advertisers — like the local retail locations that want to advertise to people specifically when they are already in the neighborhood — but that wasn’t the language Google was presenting me with. They were essentially asking if it was okay with me if they could tell the whole world where I was from moment to moment. I don’t have a way to recover the exact text of Google’s request, which is a problem in itself, but that is the gist of it.

Until I agreed, I could not sign in. I could not access any Google services at all: not YouTube, not Google Plus, not Google Checkout. I faced a difficult choice: I could let Google, in effect, stalk me, or I could say goodbye to all of these services permanently.

Obviously, since you are reading this, I clicked the button to give Google the permission it was seeking. But since then, I have been having misgivings about it. It does not seem like an entirely fair trade. It is not that I don’t value Google’s services. But personal security is valuable too. It is perhaps more valuable than all information services combined, and there is no such thing as personal security if potentially the whole world can know where you are and where you are going at random times. And if this is a minor concern for me, something that is still bugging me a week later, there are others for whom it is a very big deal: corporate executives, minor celebrities, and Occupy Wall Street protesters, to name a few.

I haven’t seen any indication that Google is abusing its personal location tracking abilities, but on the other hand, that is not the kind of information a big, powerful corporation would tend to broadcast. And even if Google itself doesn’t use personal data indiscriminately, what of the marketing partners that it is sharing people’s location data with? We can hardly form an opinion about them, not knowing the first thing about who they are, or who they might be in the future.

I dug into Google’s privacy policies in the hope that they might shed some light on the subject. Although they run to hundreds of pages, they are strangely silent about Google’s uses of personal location tracking. However, they do contain this cautionary note:

Certain of our products and services allow you to interact and share your information with others. Please consider carefully before disclosing any personal information or data that might be accessible to others.

In that spirit, I am considering what I might do to share less of my location data with Google. I am not suggesting that I could stop using Google entirely. But it seems only prudent to look at alternatives and find the easiest ways to cut back. If I am connected to Google services only intermittently, and never all day long, then Google or its partners can’t produce a coherent narrative of my comings and goings.

When I started to look for alternatives on Saturday, I found that Google’s users have more choices than ever. Years ago when I signed up for Google Mail, it was the only email service of its kind. Now there are hundreds. Similarly, Blogger has gone from being one of the more powerful blog engines to merely being one of the more convenient. Google itself has an engineering initiative, Data Liberation, to help users extract their data from Google products so that it can be taken elsewhere.

As an easy first step, I deleted everything from Google Docs and Google Mail. That took 10 minutes. I removed Google Mail from my mobile phone, replacing it with another email account. Ten more minutes. I am trying to develop the habit of accessing all my Google stuff, including web searches, at once, especially at night or early in the morning. That alone may reduce my Google footprint by nearly a third. If the Google tracking problem continues to bug me, I may do more.