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Google's Location History Debacle May Hurt Business Adoption

New research discovers that applications may still store user's location data even after Google location-tracking services have been turned off, calling into question the possible impact for business users.

Research emerged this week finding that certain Google applications are storing location data, even after consumers believed they had turned Google location tracking services off. The discovery of this behavior could ding the cloud giant in the eyes of business users, at least one expert says.

Google's location-tracking behavior on Android and iOS devices was first revealed by an Associated Press investigation and later confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton University. The investigation found that despite users turning off location tracking using the privacy settings on their mobile devices or on the web, certain applications take time-stamped snapshots of the user's location and store that data to be used later when the user performs a search, opens applications such as Google Maps, or checks the weather.

While the research evaluated consumer usage of Google apps, many businesses today are also relying on the very same applications subject to location-tracking, in which Google collects and uses to deliver targeted advertising. History has shown that if companies quickly address issues related to privacy, consumers are equally as quick to accept it and move on, Patrick Moorhead, president and principle analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy, told CRN. The location-tracking issue, however, could be a bigger problem for Google as the company tries to go after more enterprise users, Moorhead added.

"Businesses could be a very different matter, as businesses have a duty to protect their employees’ privacy," he said. "This could hurt their chances in business."

Reed Wiedower, CTO for New Signature, a Washington, D.C.-based solution provider, isn't convinced that Google wouldn't also use these applications to track and monetize business user data.

"To suggest that Google, or any other advertising-based business, would only advertise to consumers, and would instead be a trusted partner who would not to monetize business data, doesn’t make sense," Wiedower said.

[Related: Google Partners Embrace Tech Giant's Enterprise Cloud Mission ]

On its website, Google stated on one of its help pages that "with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored" -- a statement that researchers this week determined to be misleading for users. After the AP story was published, Google changed the page to: “This setting does not affect other location services on your device... some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps."

Google is upfront when asking users for permission to use their location information in certain applications, such as Google Maps, which reminds users to allow access to location for navigating purposes. Switching off Location History under "account settings" stops Google from creating a location timeline that can be viewed by the user. However, users can further opt out and stop Google from collecting snapshots through a separate feature and set of steps within Google's Web & App Activity feature, which further limits Google’s data collection. Additionally, both Android and iOS operating systems let users opt in to location tracking on an app-by-app basis.

When reached for comment by CRN, a Google spokesperson said: “Location History is a Google product that is entirely opt in, and users have the controls to edit, delete, or turn it off at any time. As the [AP report] notes, we make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience when they do things like perform a Google search or use Google for driving directions."

Google did not address whether the location-tracking behavior differs for business users that rely on Google Cloud Platform applications, such as Google Maps.

Google's Diane Greene said in July that the internet giant has more than 1.4 billion Gmail users.

The new research adds to the growing list of privacy concerns that have grown out of the sale of user data, which have plagued other internet giants, such as Facebook, New Signature's Wiedower said.

"It is both entirely predictable and a result of the business model that many large internet firms, [like] Google and Facebook, have chosen to adopt to monetize the users of their platform to sell advertising. It’s why there’s a sharp divide between businesses built on other revenue streams, [including] Apple or Microsoft, and those built upon advertising," he said.

Companies that have built their platforms around monetizing user data, in general, are unlikely to make any change that could negatively impact their advertising business, Wiedower said.

"Advertising-focused organizations may [consider] their actions malicious, but in the end, any action which reduces the amount of relevant customer data they have lowers their ability to monetize said data, so they can’t 'fix' this," he said.

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