There’s a lot of details on how Google and specifically Android tracks your location, that most people aren’t aware of. And if you ask me, that’s cluelessness by design. For most people, turning on “location” on their devices, seeing that little 📍-icon popping up, means that the device is now “connected to the GPS”. In reality however, that usually means that the device is scanning Wi-Fi, mobile networks and even Bluetooth in some cases to improve the results – in battery saving mode Android isn’t actually using GPS at all to locate the device!
So why’s this a big deal? Because every Wi-Fi sharing device is automatically mapped by Google, and they’re using your devices as a tool of doing so. In a nutshell:
- Google knows the location of your device (i.e. you), even if you’re using a VPN and your IP would be pointing elsewhere.
- Your device is basically enslaved to Google, providing location data regarding its surroundings, and thus improving Google’s services with the cost of your device’s battery life, performance, and your privacy.
- Every Wi-Fi hotspot, router and such is unwillingly acting as a location beacon for Google.
Luckily there are few ways to opt-out of these things. In this blog post, I’m going to show you how to do just that.
First, couple of notes. Google isn’t the only one doing this – unfortunately, yet obviously. Also, some of these things that I’m going to go through are also tied to Google Maps, which means that yes, if you have it disabled (because completely uninstalling it is impossible on Android) then you might already be in a bit better position. However, this also means that as Google Maps can be used in an app and a web format outside of Android, you’re not off the hook even if you’re running some different OS. In my example and screenshots, I’m using Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with Android 7.0.
Let’s start by looking at the aforementioned location methods in Android.
Settings -> Connections -> Location
This is how it should look like, “Device only”. However, I know for a fact that if you haven’t tampered with that setting, it is not the one that’s selected by default. Instead, you probably have…
…”High accuracy“. Now you can clearly see that it lists Wi-Fi and mobile networks as additional methods of pinpointing your location. Interestingly enough, you can have “High accuracy” enabled even if your Wi-Fi is turned off. I don’t know if Android then relies only on GPS and mobile networks, or if it actually does some Wi-Fi scanning in the background.
Anyway, make sure to select “Device only”.
Going a step back, and selecting ‘Improve accuracy‘ menu, you can see then these extra options. Now, this is where it gets confusing. These two settings are seemingly similar to what “High accuracy” and “Battery saving” options claim to be in the ‘Locating method’ menu. Here it actually does say that both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning can be used even if your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off. So whereas this wasn’t clear in the previous menu, it is explicitly said in here. However, the selections in ‘Locating method’ and ‘Improve accuracy’ menus are (seemingly) not tied to each other, as all of these settings can be switched on/off independently.
Yep, confusing and suspicious as hell. Just turn both of these off.
The first of these, “Location History”, can also be accessed through Google Maps Android application like this: Settings -> Personal content -> Location History
This is an optional thing to do, but personally I don’t see any reason why Google should store (i.e. analyze & monetize) my location history.
Another “interesting” detail on Google Maps app behavior is that when you launch the app without having your Location enabled, it asks you to enable it. What it doesn’t say is that it actually enables the location and forces on “Improved accuracy” setting – regardless of what your previous selection had been last time you enabled the location setting.
There are other Google Maps settings that you might also want to review and disable, but these go bit off topic, so I’ll leave them out of this blog post. Let’s just say that they include things such as “timeline emails” and “Web & App activity”..
Change SSID of your access points (AP) to opt-out from Google’s Location services
Although this affects only Google’s snooping on your Wi-Fi, it’s still worth doing. As they put it in their own Help article, “To opt out, change the SSID (name) of your Wi-Fi access point (your wireless network name) so that it ends with “_nomap“. For example, if your SSID is “12345,” you would change it to “12345_nomap.” ”
Of course, we just have to take Google’s word that by doing this they don’t use our Wi-Fi access points for triangulating users’ location. I think changing SSIDs is such a low hanging fruit that I did it anyway with my home router and phone.
Also note that simply hiding your SSID doesn’t necessarily prevent these mapping services from working. This is an old myth and has been debunked time and time again. Oh, and there’s still the MAC address that’s broadcasted anyway.
The bottom line
Basically every device is monitoring (or spying, if you will) on every other device. This behavior goes across all operating systems, and it’s most prevalent in mobile devices. An individual can only do so much to fight against these giant location and mapping databases and services, but hey, better something than nothing.
If all this seems too extreme or an abstract concept to grasp, take a look at Wigle. They provide semi-open service which includes multiple Wi-Fi access point location databases. I bet you can find your home network in there, too.