Google Maps is used by more than a billion people every month. And those people send in more than 20 million suggested updates each day. Better directions for you, more data for Google.
There are reasons why so many people use Google Maps: It’s arguably the easiest mapping service to use and has the most up-to-date data available. But it wouldn’t be a Google product if it didn’t collect lots of data about you. This can be collected through the Maps app, but also the GPS location settings of the phone that’s always in your pocket. As a result, there’s a lot Google knows about your whereabouts.
The extent of what Google knows can be seen on your location timeline. All the little red dots shown on the map reveal where you’ve been and when. For me, it shows 461 places that I visited before I turned the location settings off at the start of 2019. (The most common: predictably, my home and WIRED’s London office.)
If you want to turn off location data you can do this through your Google account here. There are also options to auto-delete future location history every three or 18 months. This will stop Google from gathering data about your location when you’re not using its services.
You may also want to turn off web tracking and activity, as other Google services and products can gather information about your location. “Location data may be saved as part of activity on Search and Maps when your Web & App Activity setting is on, and included in your photos depending on your camera app settings,” the company says.
Location data is different from the other types of data Google gathers about you: Using mapping services without giving away your location is pretty difficult. There’s one thing you can do on your phone to limit how much data Google Maps gathers: limit when Google Maps can access your location. Through Android and iOS settings you can limit Maps’ ability to access your location to when the app is in use, rather than at all times.
A truly private maps service doesn’t really exist for every platform. But there are other options out there that don’t store and gather as much of your data or feed it back into a larger profile of you. Here are the alternatives you could consider, and we’ve highlighted where there may be potential privacy trade-offs you have to make.
OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of apps—it’s built by the people who use it and all the information is open data, meaning anyone can reuse the maps for anything. It’s kept up to date by people using GPS devices, aerial photography, and other free sources of information. If you go somewhere and the map isn’t correct, then you can create an account and suggest changes.
OpenStreetMap is largely web-based. It is optimized for smartphones, but there aren’t any official apps provided by the OpenStreetMap Foundation. There are, however, third-party apps that use its data. These tend to come with trade-offs. Maps.Me has downloadable maps that can be used offline, but also has adverts.
This mapping app is created using OpenStreetMap’s data but it also comes with a host of extra options you can use. These include map downloads for offline use, travel guides, and ski maps.