Did you know that your location is collected by default? In other words, you have to manually opt out if you don’t want to be tracked. This information can and likely has been acquired by government organizations. Maybe you knew this before the Edward Snowden leaks, or maybe you didn’t. It’s safe to assume that everything that can be recorded is recorded.
Okay, almost everything. They don’t have my thoughts, yet… I think. You’ve probably used GPS (Global Positioning System) to get directions. Some people have a separate device, but most use their smartphones. Either way, you get the info you need and most people leave it at that. However, your trip data isn’t for your eyes only.
Where does this information go?
Did you know you can look at this information, export it, and most importantly delete it? Your smartphone is quite sophisticated. Many people don’t give it much thought, but that gadget you likely take for granted is a modern marvel. Some of the advanced tech inside:
- HD Camera (Most likely two of them)
- Gyroscopic sensor
- GPS-Enabled Chip
Other than GPS, other methods of location tracking are cell phone tower triangulation and WiFi area geolocation. However, here we’ll discuss GPS tracking.
New View On Your Stomping Grounds
If you want to take a look at this yourself, just go to your Google Maps Locations History. NOTE: You may have to sign in if you aren’t already. The default view is one day, but you can change it to 30 days. On first glance, all the straight lines confused me since they didn’t follow the roads I took.
The reason for this is that location gets sampled discretely, rather than continuously, hence the straight lines. If you expand your time-stamps in the left menu, you can see the various location data points sampled throughout the day. If you click on one of them, it will show a pop up with the exact time and general location.
The pop up will say “stationary” when you weren’t en route, and it gives you the option to delete the data point. If you would like, you can select Delete all history from the left-hand menu. Personally, I haven’t done this, but you might be concerned about someone seeing this data.
Here is some of my location history. Can you tell where I live and work? Zooming in on this data will reveal more, but you can do that with your own data. I noticed that there are data points in Elgin. I was perplexed since I hadn’t visited Elgin during that time frame.
My assumption is that this data point got erroneously collected when I disabled my GPS and connected to my home Wi-Fi network. As a result, the location of my ISP was recorded instead of my physical location. Granted this is an assumption, so please let me know the answer in the comments if you know what happened here.
Secure your Google Account
Warning: Obvious security alert. If you left your computer without password protection and logged into Google, anyone can walk up to it and use your Google account. They can then visit the location history page to view your travels.
The same can be done if someone hacks into your Google account, which is why 2-factor verification is a good idea. If you log into Google on a new device, you’ll get a code via text message which you enter to gain access. If you haven’t done this yet, I recommend you visit the 2 Factor Verification Landing Page by Google.
Control What You Share With Google
Disabling Google Maps Location Tracking is a breeze. Click the Settings icon and select “History Settings”. Then select the toggle to disable tracking. Don’t confuse this with deleting existing info. This is a separate action, which you can take by choosing “Delete all history” in your menu.
NSA Collection of Data
Warning: This section has many opinions. Even though you can “delete” location data from your account, I don’t think that this data disappears. Have you ever heard of the NSA splitter box at AT&T? No, well they essentially bug the entire country by making a copy of the internet.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an article called NSA Spying on Americans that describes recent lawsuits and the fiber-optic splitter which duplicates the internet stream. The split off copy of the internet is then sent into a secret room that no one at AT&T can access. I’m gonna guess they have databases to store this info.
I imagine there are pros and cons to this setup. If you are running for office, maybe you wouldn’t want anyone knowing where you’ve been (strip club/ gambling?).
On the other hand, if your child is missing and Google Maps technology can help you find them, you are going to be a grateful parent. The point I’m attempting to highlight is that information collection isn’t inherently bad or good. The crux here is:
Who has access to this data? What can they do with that information?
Another unlikely scenario: Falsely accused of a crime. What if you can use your location history to prove that you were nowhere near the scene of the crime? Here is another one for you: Is your significant other overly paranoid and jealous? If it gets to this point, you can show them that you really were pulling long hours at work. If you think of other scenarios, please add them in the comments.
Exporting Your Location Data
Additionally, if you want to export your data and use it elsewhere, you can click the “Export to KML” menu item. If you have Google Earth installed, you can then open and view your data. You can download Google Earth or Google Earth Pro if you don’t have it already. After the KML file finishes downloading, right-click on it and select “open with” in your context menu.
Unfortunately, you can only export 30 days at a time without jumping through a lot of hoops. I found an article about how to extract your location info from Google, but it was quite elaborate, so I put it off for a later date. There are other programs like ESRI ArcGIS that can open KML files, but I’ll leave that research to you.