This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Google Maps knows everything. Not just about every street, and every cafe, bar and shop on that street, but the people who go to them. With 1 billion monthly active users, the app is embedded in people’s lives – directing them on their commute, to their friends’ and families’ homes, to doctor’s appointments and on their travels abroad.
The fact that Google Maps has the power to follow your every step doesn't automatically mean it’s misusing that power. But they could, which is an issue in and of itself, especially since Google’s headquarters are in the US, where privacy legislation is looser than in Europe and intelligence agencies have a history of surveilling private citizens (I see you, NSA).
Yes, Google Maps is incredibly useful. But here are just a few reasons to double check your privacy settings and ask yourself how much personal data you’re willing to sacrifice in the name of convenience.
- Google Maps Wants Your Search History
Google’s “Web & App Activity” settings describe how the company collects data, such as user location, to create a faster and “more personalised” experience. In plain English, this means that every single place you’ve looked up in the app – whether it’s a strip club, a kebab shop or your moped-riding drug dealer’s location – is saved and integrated into Google's search engine algorithm for a period of 18 months.
Google knows you probably find this creepy. That’s why the company uses so-called "dark patterns" – user interfaces crafted to coax us into choosing options we might not otherwise, for example by highlighting an option with certain fonts or brighter colours.
VICE created a new Google account for this piece, to see how difficult it would be for a new user to avoid the dark patterns. After pushing the “Create Account” button, we were served a pop-up saying the account was “set up to include personalisation features” in small grey letters, with a much larger blue button saying “Confirm”. By clicking “Confirm”, we would have consented to the "Web & App Activity" settings mentioned above. The alternative was the less visible "More options" button, which opened a new page with long and complicated explanations. Then we still had to manually deactivate the "Web & App Activity" settings to opt out.
We sent the Google press office a list of 12 questions, and a spokeswoman replied saying Google wants its settings to be easy to find and use. She said the settings were carefully developed and that Google is open to feedback. She also went into more detail about our questions, but did not want to be quoted.
- Google Maps Limits Its Features If You Don’t Share Your Search History
If you open your Google Maps app, you’ll see a circle in the top right corner that signifies you’re logged in with your Google account. That’s not necessary, and you can simply log out. Of course, the log out button is slightly hidden, but can be found like this: click on the circle > Settings > scroll down > Log out of Google Maps.
Unfortunately, Google Maps won’t let you save frequently visited places if you’re not logged into your Google account. If you choose not to log in, when you click on the search bar you get a "Tired of typing?" button, suggesting you sign in, and coaxing you towards more data collection.
- Google Maps Can Snitch On You
Another problematic feature is the "Google Maps Timeline", which “shows an estimate of places you may have been and routes you may have taken based on your Location History”. With this feature, you can look at your personal travel routes on Google Maps, including the means of transport you probably used, such as a car or a bike. The obvious downside is that your every move is known to Google, and to anyone with access to your account.
And that’s not just hackers – Google may also share data with government agencies such as the police. On its FAQ page for this topic, Google says its legal team evaluates each case individually. Every six months, the company releases a transparency report, although nothing is available for 2020. Between July and December of 2019, Google received 81,785 requests affecting 175,715 accounts worldwide, and disclosed information in the majority of the cases, and 74 percent in May of 2019.
If your “Location History” is on, your phone “saves where you go with your devices, even when you aren't using a specific Google service”, as is explained in more detail on this page. This feature is useful if you lose your phone, but also turns it into a bonafide tracking device.
- Google Maps Wants to Know Your Habits
Reviews on Google can be super helpful, but a quick search can reveal sensitive information mindlessly left by reviewers. Just one example is a user who (seemingly using their real name) wrote the following review about a Berlin supermarket: "I’ve been going there two or three times a week for the past four years both to shop for my family or on my walk after dinner.” Needless to say, sharing this kind of information with the whole world can be risky.
Google Maps often asks users to share a quick public rating. "How was Berlin Burger? Help others know what to expect," suggests the app after you’ve picked up your dinner. This feels like a casual, lighthearted question and relies on the positive feeling we get when we help others. But all this info is collected in your Google profile, making it easier for someone to figure out if you’re visiting a place briefly and occasionally (like on holiday) or if you live nearby.
If you do end up regretting a review, at least Google gives you the option to make your reviews private after you’ve posted them. The unintuitive path goes: Profile icon> Your profile > Edit profile > Profile and privacy settings > Scroll down > Restricted profile. If you enable this, you’ll need to approve who can follow your profile and see your reviews.
- Google Maps Doesn’t Like It When You’re Offline
Remember GPS navigation? It might have been clunky and slow, but it’s a good reminder that you don’t need to be connected to the internet to be directed. In fact, other apps offer offline navigation. On Google, you can download maps, but offline navigation is only available for cars. It seems fairly unlikely the tech giant can’t figure out how to direct pedestrians and cyclists without internet.
- Google Makes It Seem Like This Is All for Your Own Good
"Providing useful, meaningful experiences is at the core of what Google does,” the company says on its website, adding that knowing your location is important for this reason. They say they use this data for all kinds of useful things, like “security” and “language settings” – and, of course, selling ads. Google also sells advertisers the possibility to evaluate how well their campaigns reached their target (that’s you!) and how often people visited their physical shops “in an anonymised and aggregated manner”. But only if you opt in (or you forget to opt out).
There are alternatives to Google Maps, but none are as good
Sometimes, there are good alternatives to problematic apps. That’s true for WhatsApp, for example, but not for Google Maps. Apple Maps has stricter privacy features, but it’s not available for Android. Apps like Here WeGo and OsmAnd still collect data and just aren’t as good – but if you’re a walker who prefers to stay offline, OsmAnd and Maps.me can at least show you the way without connecting to the internet.