How to protect yourself from Google’s Sensorvault surveillance program

It’s a scary thought: You and your friends are marching for gun control, climate action or social justice when a crime happens a mile or two away. Now you and the thousands of people who attended are suspects. And guess who turned you in: Google.

That’s because Google knows where you are right now, even if location tracking on your Google apps is turned off. And the company is handing over your location information to law enforcement agencies.

Google calls this program “Sensorvault” and its use by law enforcement for nearly 10 years was a well-kept secret until the New York Times recently exposed Google’s operation.

The truly troubling part is that you don’t have to be involved in a crime to be targeted by the police when you’re in the vicinity of a crime. Google’s Sensorvault stores your minute-by-minute travel via the Google apps on your mobile phone. One chief of police even boasted that Google can go beyond just a single location to show your “pattern of life.

There are some ways you may be able to protect yourself from Google’s surveillance program. One word of caution: This solution isn’t foolproof, because Google could still be tracking your whereabouts, even after taking these steps. 

Turn off Location History. 

Because Sensorvault uses data from your location history, you should first turn this feature off in your Google account. If you’re on an iPhone and don’t use any Google apps (like Maps), you should be okay, but most iPhone users do have these apps installed.

  1. On a computer, visit the Activity Controls page for your Google account (and make sure you’re signed in).
  2.  Click the slider next to Location History and ensure it’s greyed out.
Turn off Google Location History

Delete your Location History.

Now that your Location History is turned off, it’s probably a good idea to delete your previous location data as well.

  1. On the same screen under Location History, click “Manage Activity,” which will bring you to a map showing the timeline of your historical location data.
  2. In the lower right corner, click on the gear icon, which will bring up a menu.
  3. Click “Delete all Location History” and when prompted, click the check box and continue to delete your Location History.
Delete all Location History

On an Android or iPhone

If you don’t have access to a computer, here’s how you can turn off and delete your Location History. (The Location History feature should be off by default but you may have been asked to turn it on at some point and done so.)

The easiest way is through the Google Maps app. Open the app, then tap the menu icon in the top left corner (the three lines). Tap Your timeline, then tap the three dots in the top right corner. Tap Settings and privacy. Below you’ll see Location History is on or Location History is off. If it’s on, tap it, then, on the Location History screen, toggle off Location History. You’ll be asked if you want to Pause Location History? Tap Pause at the lower right.

To delete your Location History, open Google Maps, tap the menu icon in the top left corner (the three lines). Tap Your timeline, then tap the three dots in the top right corner. Tap Settings and privacy. Now tap Delete all Location History. Going forward, you can choose to delete your Location History on a regular basis. Tap Automatically delete Location History and you’ll be given a choice: delete your Location History every 3 months or every 18 months. Although many have suggested that 3 months is the minimum time Google needs to derive what value it can from your Location History — and that deleting your Location History every 3 months (or 18) is like closing the barn door after the horse has galloped away.

While disabling and deleting Location History from your Google account and devices may protect you from Google’s surveillance, the company continues to track other users and provide information to law enforcement. In fact, some Google apps will still automatically time- and location-stamp your whereabouts without your explicit consent whether or not Location History is disabled.

That’s why we urge you to sign our petition demanding that Google shut down the Sensorvault program once and for all to stop this gross breach of privacy. You can learn more and sign the petition here.