Does Google Maps Have Privacy Issues?

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 ).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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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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.

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