Google’s New Your Timeline Feature Creates Safety, Privacy Worries

Privacy graphic over woman's face from Pixabay

Google’s new Your Timeline feature makes it easy for a hacker to stalk anyone. Google tracks user’s location, the names of businesses they frequent, the route they use to travel, and links photos to a specific location, day, date, and time. No wonder it’s got privacy advocates up in arms.

On Tuesday, July 21, Google announced something called Your Timeline a Google Maps tool that promises to enable users to “rediscover” the places they’ve been on any given day, the route taken to get there, and the photos taken along the way.

Here’s what Google says in its original post about the new timeline feature: “Your Timeline is private and visible only to you; and you control the locations you choose to keep.”

Right. Google, the company that publicly admits it monitors users email and turns the contents over to law enforcement and not-for-profit organizations alike without telling users, is promising to keep this new tracking information to itself. If you believe that, I’d love to talk to you about some beachfront land in West Texas my family has for sale.

In general, I don’t use Google products. However, I have used the Google Maps GPS feature on my iPhone. So, thanks to this new “feature”, Google is admitting that every time I do that, it is tracking my movements, my home address, and the addresses of the people I visit frequently. The routes I take to get where I am going, and what times of day I normally travel that route. The businesses that I visited on any given day – including Google’s guess as to where I went if I didn’t confirm their guess. Plus, of course, any photos that document where I was, who I was with, and the specific date I was at that specific place.

It’s a stalkers dream. Can you imagine that kind of information in the hands of an abusive spouse or former boyfriend? Unfortunately, I can. What about someone who is using a lunch break to go on job interviews they’d rather their current employer doesn’t know about? Or someone having an affair? Pity the poor celebrity who now has to worry about their location being tracked, not just their private photos being hacked and posted online.

It’s never been a secret that cell phones are little more than mobile tethers that track our location. But now, the data is organized and presented in a way that makes it easy to paint a very detailed portrait of where we are, who we’re with, and what we’re doing on any given day. Google is taking pains to reassure privacy advocates that the date is safe and secure.

Do I trust Google to keep the information safe and private? Hell, no.

Erasing Your Tracks

Google says it’s easy to delete a day or your full history at any time, and that users can also edit the places that appear. It’s supposed to be possible to remove a specific location, or to give a frequented spot a private name. So my friend, who volunteers at a shelter for battered women could call it “Grandma’s House” – but that wouldn’t stop someone who recognized her as the public face of the shelter from hacking into the data stream and figuring out that she is at “Grandma’s House” every Tuesday and Thursday, and then deciding to visit Grandma themselves, just in case it’s the location where the hacker’s vulnerable spouse is awaiting a court order to protect herself from him.

Your Timeline is easy to disable: just go to your timeline page, and in the Settings menu (it’s the one with a cog icon) select “Pause Location History.” That will stop Google Maps from collecting places you go with your devices and adding them to your Location History map. You can also delete all the already-stored places from the Settings menu too – just select “Delete all Location History”.

Pausing Location History doesn’t turn off Location Reporting or location services for a given device. If you want to completely turn off GPS or Wi-Fi location services, you can turn off your device’s main location feature with these steps, from a contributor to Google’s support forums.

The person who posted the steps in the Google support forum says that the information applies only to devices running Android 5.0 and higher. Also note that using Google Search and Maps will still cause some location data to be saved as part of your Web & App Activity, and disabling the location history may interfere with some other apps that track your location. That’s fine by me – I don’t want or need to be tracked. But if you use an app that requires tracking, be careful about the steps you take to avoid problems with apps you want to use.

Naked Security, the fabulous security blog from Sophos, offers these tips on how to erase your tracks from Google Timeline:

Disabling Google Timeline an Android

  • Open App drawer. Select Settings, then Location.
  • Find Google Location Settings and individually switch off both Location Reporting and Location History.
  • Underneath Location History, select “Delete Location History” to wipe clean the cache of locations.
  • Repeat the steps for every Google account you have registered.

Disabling Google Timeline on iOS

  • Open Settings. Select Privacy, then Location Services.
  • Either disable all Location Services using the slider at the top, or scroll through the list to decide, case-by-case, which apps you want to allow.
  • At the bottom, select “System Services” and decide what features you want to allow.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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