If you use Google Now on your smartphone, you’re probably aware of the fact that Google tracks your location to provide you with useful information. But what you might not realize is how much of your location data it has collected — and kept — on the places you go on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
As revealed by a post on the Google Maps blog, a new Google feature called “Timeline” enables you “to remember and view the places you’ve been on a given day, month or year.” You can look back on an archive of your location data, which it can even associate with the photos you’ve taken. “Your Timeline allows you to visualize your real-world routines, easily see the trips you’ve taken and get a glimpse of the places where you spend your time,” Google explains. Not only does Timeline show you where you’ve been, but it shows you what times you were there and what route you took to get there. If you use Google Photos, Timeline will even associate the photos you took on a specific day with the locations you visited, “to help resurface your memories,” according to Google’s blog post.
Cat Zakrzewski reports for The Wall Street Journal that the tool could help you track personal habits, check on how many times a month you really make it to the gym, or remember your favorite spots on trips to make suggestions to friends. But Zakrzewski notes that the feature should be eye-opening to users who aren’t aware of how much data Google is collecting about them.
Even though Google is quick to reassure users that their Timeline is “private and visible only to you,” many people would — and probably should — find the depth of the data that it exhibits unsettling. The problem is that even though Google is quick to explain that you can control the data that Timeline keeps, it presents some very real privacy concerns. If someone else accessed the phone or the computer where you use the feature, they could easily access information on where you go on a daily or weekly basis. Sharing your password with anyone — already not a good idea — would be a patently bad one.
Whether you’re sufficiently creeped out by the feature or are still intrigued, it’s useful to know that Timeline is underpinned by a setting called Location History, which creates a private map of all the places you go with your logged-in devices. If you’ve opted in to the setting, Google’s apps can provide what the company’s blog post characterizes as “useful experiences… across our products, such as providing Now notifications when there are traffic incidents along your commute or reminding you where you parked your car.”
If you haven’t enabled Location History, then you don’t have anything to worry about. If you’re not sure if you’ve turned it on, or you think you may have opted in without knowing exactly how much data the feature grabs, you can turn off Location History in your “My Account” settings. If you already had the feature turned off, Google won’t have any data to show you in Timeline.
If you want to make sure that everything is the way you want it, check out Google’s support page for Timeline or take advantage of new tools that help you go on a more thorough walk through your privacy and security settings. (If nothing else, at least turn on two-step verification for your account.)
The Wall Street Journal notes that Google isn’t the first to collect this kind of data. On Apple’s iOS — where Google’s Timeline is not (yet) available — you can access your frequent locations in the settings on your phone, but Google’s tool takes the idea a big step farther in showing you all of the places you’ve been.
The feature draws attention to what many consider Google’s “creepy” habit of tracking you. While that’s probably not a good thing for Google, it should be a pretty good wake-up call for you. Most users are familiar with the paradox of wanting more privacy while still desiring the personalization that only comes with granting companies like Google deep access to data on their personal habits. In this case, the value of the service offered by Timeline won’t be high enough for most users to warrant the privacy invasion of keeping Location History switched on — so we’d recommend opting out of this one.