Police can request your Location History from Google Maps Timeline


Google Watching You - Geoawesomeness

If you’re criminal and you have Android phone or you use Google Maps on iOS you should consider switching back to your old feature phone. The Verge reported about several cases where police have filed warrants requesting from Google the location logs of suspects.

The requested data is collected by a little-known service called Google’s Location History. We’ve been writing about it multiple times over the last few years as well as last July when the official coming out of the service happened as it has been added to Google Maps app in the form of the Timeline feature.

Google says that the Timeline helps you add a spatial layer to your memories but frankly speaking what it actually does is showing users that the company not only stores the information about our whereabouts but also deeply analyses it. The service is a clear evidence that Google records when and where your smartphone was and today Google’s policy is to comply with law enforcement requests for this location data.

According to the US’ Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which recently analysed the case asking a company for smartphone location data voluntarily shared by a users doesn’t represent a search under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, and therefore doesn’t need a warrant. According to the judges volunteering your geographic position information means you’ve consciously given up a “reasonable expectation of privacy” to a 3rd party.

No matter if we want to hide something or not it make sense be aware of sort of data we are sharing with the world. In that post we’ve listed all services where Google might be tracking your personal information and in many cases you can manage the privacy settings to keep it private. It’s worth taking some time to review it.

It is also worth mentioning that the capability is far more widespread on Android phones than iOS. While both system can calculate your geographic position with a similar accuracy, the Location History functions can’t easily log that data outside of the Android ecosystem.

I'm a professional always thinking outside the box and a self-confessed gadget addict. As a son of a professor of cartography I was surrounded by maps all my life and as a result spatial way of thinking and seeing reality is naturally embedded in who I am.


  1. “If you’re criminal and you use Google Maps you should consider switching back to your old feature phone.”

    1. “and you use Google Maps” – the Google location service is part of Android, not part of Google Maps.

    2. “switch back to your old feature phone” – which, like newer phones, still connects to local base stations and keeps a record of where you’ve been which police can, and do, request. Triangulation of that data gives good results – indeed, that’s how Google Location works.

    But, if you’re paid by the click, congratulations on more clickbait!

    • Hi James, actually from July 2015 Google Location History is available as subservice of Google Maps called the Timeline. In Android in order to turn the tracking off you have to indeed do it in general Android settings but on iOS you turn it on and off via Google Maps app.

      I work in this industry and I know for a fact that BTS-based triangulation can give you location accuracy (a few hundred meters to several kilometres) which is not even close what you can get with GPS+WiFi+Cell-ID (a few meters).

      Finally Google positioning algorithms are not based on triangulation but Cell-ID+WiFi proximity followed by GPS.

      • Aleks – you’re confusing “where you see the data” (Google Maps) with “how it’s collected” (which is the Location Services on your phone). At least on Android, if you never use Google Maps, your location data will still be collected: though you’ll have agreed to this when you first get your phone. Google’s collected this data for a long while – I used to view it in a service called Google Latitude, before they pulled it into the main Maps app. So “and you use Google Maps” is incorrect.

        Your “location history” is kept by mobile phone companies using BTS data. You’re right that it isn’t as accurate. But it’s still kept, and is requested by the police. So it isn’t correct to say that “consider switching back to your old feature phone” will hide your location data. It won’t.

        Your first sentence is not just technically wrong, it’s materially incorrect and misleading. But if you’re paid by the click, you probably don’t care.

        • James, I agree with your point that a statement “if you’re criminal and you use Google Maps you should consider switching back to your old feature phone.” might be oversimplification. I’ve edited the sentence to make it more precise: “If you’re criminal and you have Android phone or you use Google Maps on iOS…”. Thanks for this valid comment.

          With regards to wireless carrier positioning data vs. Google owned location history you are a bit wrong. First of all from the court perspective the difference in positioning data accuracy between a few meters and a few hundred meters is significant. Secondly getting such a data from wireless carrier requires a warrant. As I wrote in the article the situation is much different with Google Location History where:
          “according to the judges volunteering your geographic position information means you’ve consciously given up a “reasonable expectation of privacy” to a 3rd party” and in a result a warrant is not needed. Last but not least Google has other contextual data about users that might allow law enforcement to identify a particular person even though he is not logged into his gmail account while committing a crime, which is not the case with a wireless carriers and e.g. prepaid phones.

          • I think it’s sad how these companies are breaking the law…How are amendments don’t mean anything anymore. I think it’s sad that you can’t use a phone or an app without giving up your right. That right there alone should be against the law because in all honesty it’s not giving you a choice or really making it volunteer…The reality is you need a phone these days in today’s world and in order to have a phone you have to give up your rights…That is not freedom..Im sorry.. America is going to shit and everybody is just watching it happend.


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