Photographing landmarks = involuntary location tracking

A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon with my family in San Francisco. San Francisco being the beautiful city that it is, I took a few photos with my phone, including some of the beautiful Bay Bridge and the Ferry Building because even living here, I am not immune to their beauty.

Bay Bridge: easily recognizable.

The Bay Bridge: easily recognizable. 

Yesterday, Google+ notified me that a story has been created called “Saturday afternoon in San Francisco.” Now, I love the story feature on Google+. It animates and annotates a set of photos automatically, making it super-easy for me to share. The story created out of my 20 or so photos from that day chose the prettiest ones, auto-corrected their coloring, and added them to a timeline. That’s the positive.

Now, the negative.

I’m a bit paranoid about location tracking. I like it turned off and I don’t like broadcasting my location to the world. When apps ask for location permissions, I don’t allow it. When sites ask for location, I don’t allow it. I’ve turned off any location setting I can.

That said, I am constantly bombarded with requests to allow location tracking, and some are more aggressive than others. For example, when opening Android’s default camera app for the first time, the splash screen says: “Tag your photos and videos with the locations where they are taken. Other apps can access this information along with your saved images.” The option is pre-checked and all I have to do is hit “next.” As users tend to turn on cameras when they’d like to take a photo for the first time, this is a screen that could be easily ignored in the haste to capture that moment. Once turned on, location tracking for photos is harder to turn off, hidden in the camera settings.

So back to my Google+ story. My first thought was that I had somehow enabled location tracking. I went through all my phone settings and found that location tracking was disabled everywhere, including photos. How then did Google know I was in San Francisco on that Saturday?

Evidently, Google has been able to recognize landmarks in photos for a long time and the Bay Bridge and Ferry Building certainly qualify as San Francisco landmarks. I found this ability a bit too creepy and invasive: I turned off all location tracking and you still know where I am? Like I said, creepy.

During the celebrity hacks of a few weeks ago, many experts were blaming the victims by saying “don’t store anything sensitive in the cloud.” Yet, users are constantly being asked for additional permissions to share more. Share more data, photos, searches, usage patterns and so on. Then, add situations like my San Francisco story where they are not always asked for permission. When I looked at permissions for stories, there is only “Turn on Google Location History” for adding location to stories. It says nothing about landmark recognition.

My point? There are plenty of scenarios where users really don’t want their location tracked. See this NPR story for an example. I urge apps to try and respect these choices and not constantly try to find their way around them.

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One thought on “Photographing landmarks = involuntary location tracking

  1. Pingback: Apps, please be kinder to users with defaults, especially location | What it all boils down to

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