Google Knows Where You’ve Been, but Does It Know Who You Are?

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In August, The Associated Press published an investigation into how Google handles the data it collects, following a curious discovery by a graduate researcher at U.C. Berkeley. For years, the company has allowed users to control their “location history,” which stores a detailed record of where they’ve been, based primarily on their activity in Google Maps. This, the researcher suggested — and The A.P. confirmed — did not work as advertised. “Some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking,” the reporters found. The revelation has since resulted in at least one lawsuit, as well as renewed public criticism from lawmakers.

I came to resent this data in a number of ways: that a cache of coordinates from Google could trigger grief or joy — that was such a nice morning, up in the park, with all those dogs — or that it, rather than a friend or a co-worker or a missed stop on the train, would be what triggers a familiar guilty reminder that the city I live in is so much bigger than the routine I’ve created within it.

There were also moments, deep in this incidental personal data diary, when I almost wished for more — when I thought about how nice it would be to be able to zoom in even further, to get back into a room and look around. These moments were brief. An intensely personal diary is the sort of thing you could only be happy to discover in your own attic, in your own handwriting, not on the servers of a multibillion-dollar advertising corporation.

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Should You Track Your Teen’s Location?

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Location tracking can, without question, damage the connection between parent and teenager. Research shows that adolescents who believe their parents have invaded their privacy go on to have higher levels of conflict at home. And teenagers who resent being trailed digitally sometimes disable location features, take pains to “spoof” their GPS, or leave their phones at friends’ houses to throw parents off their scent.

As a psychologist, I also worry that location tracking can confuse the question of who is mainly responsible for the safety of the roaming adolescent — the parent or the teenager? If parents decide against using location tracking, I encourage them to talk with their teenager about why.

We know where you live

“[W]hen you send location data as a secondary piece of information, it is extremely simple for people with very little technical knowledge to find out where you work or live,” Ilaria Liccardi says.

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Researchers at MIT and Oxford University have shown that the location stamps on just a handful of Twitter posts — as few as eight over the course of a single day — can be enough to disclose the addresses of the poster’s home and workplace to a relatively low-tech snooper.

The tweets themselves might be otherwise innocuous — links to funny videos, say, or comments on the news. The location information comes from geographic coordinates automatically associated with the tweets.

The Best Uses for IFTTT’s Location Channel

The Best Uses for IFTTT's Location Channel

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Last month, the webapp automation service, If This Then That added a new location channel to its iOS app.

…Shame Yourself Into Eating Better

…Wake Yourself Up When You’re At Your Train Stop

…Trigger Your Personal Theme Music When You Arrive Home

…Let Your Friends Know You’re Back In Town

…Email Your Significant Other When You Leave Work

 …Launch Reminders When You Leave the House

…Turn Off the Lights When You Leave the House

…Log Your Gym Hours

…Send Yourself Maps When You Arrive in a City