Google plans to save the location history of Maps users directly on their devices instead of storing it in the cloud. This change aims to make it harder for law enforcement to get access to this data.
There are things called “geofence warrants” that let law enforcement collect data from tech companies about mobile phones that were in a specific area during a certain time. For example, the FBI used this warrant to gather information about a Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle while investigating attempted arson.
Google Maps Privacy Update
Due to worries about privacy and the possibility of geofence warrants making anyone near a reported crime a potential suspect, Google has been under pressure for a long time to alter how it saves users’ location history. With the upcoming update to Maps, anticipated to happen in the next year, it seems like the tech giant is taking steps to address these concerns.
Forbes, referring to an unnamed Google employee not allowed to speak publicly, states that Google is making this change specifically to stop broad location searches that can include many people.
Marlo McGriff, the director of product at Google Maps, mentioned that, “We’re always working on ways to give people more control over their data.” Google outlined these changes in a recent blog post.
The modification specifically affects the Timeline feature in Maps, which recalls places users have visited before. Although location history is turned off by default, for those who choose to activate it, Google has typically stored that information in the cloud.
This storage method allowed law enforcement to request data through geofence warrants. With the upcoming change, as location histories will be stored on users’ devices, Google won’t have the collective data readily available to share with the police or the FBI.
Auto-Delete Updates and Scrutiny on Geofence Warrants
Google has mentioned that users will get a notification on their devices when the update is applied to their account. The transition will happen gradually over the next year on both the Android and iOS versions of the Google Maps app. The company is also adjusting its auto-delete settings, which were previously set to 18 months by default. With this update, auto-delete will now be set to three months by default.
For those who wish to retain their location data when switching to a new phone, as it will be saved locally, they can back it up to the cloud, and Google will automatically encrypt it.
Although any tech company could be subject to complying with a geofence warrant, Forbes notes that Google is the primary target of most of these warrants. Last year, Democrats wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, urging the company to “stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data.” The letter specifically mentioned 11,554 geofence warrants that Google received in 2020. At that time, there were concerns that these warrants might be used to target individuals visiting abortion clinics during a legal crackdown on the procedure.
Google is changing how it stores your location history on Maps to protect your privacy. Instead of keeping it in the cloud, it will be saved on your device. This makes it tougher for law enforcement to access your data. The update, coming in a year, also improves control with auto-delete options and encryption. Forbes notes Google’s effort to prevent broad location searches. Despite scrutiny, Google prioritizes user privacy and data protection, aligning with evolving standards and concerns.