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 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 that 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 optimised 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.
This, naturally, only applies if you’re using iOS. However, Apple has gone further than almost any other company to make its mapping app private. It’s the most privacy-friendly Google alternative out there. Apple’s Maps are much improved since the initial accuracy flaws it had when it launched back in 2012.
Apple Maps doesn’t link data to your Apple ID and any information is connected to random identifiers, which periodically reset themselves. It also works to obscure your map’s search data. “Maps converts the precise location where your search originated to a less exact one after 24 hours,” the company says. “Apple doesn’t retain a history of what you’ve searched for or where you’ve been.” And when you save locations across devices it uses end-to-end encryption so the company can’t access them.
If you want to use a maps app provided by established house-hold names, Here is probably your best option. It is owned by a consortium of car brands, including Audi, BMW, and Daimler. As a result there’s a large focus on location and navigation services but it also sells mapping content to firms such as Amazon and Garmin.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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