Depending on who you ask, Google Maps’ Timeline feature is a nifty way to remember all of the places you’ve been, or a startlingly detailed log of your movement throughout the day.

Either way, Google is now taking steps to make that location data more secure.

This week, the company said it will begin changing where it stores that Timeline data. Currently, it lives on your devices and Google’s servers, but when the shift takes place, your location history will remain solely on the hardware you own. And less of that data will be stored over time, Google says — only three months’ worth by default, down from the 18 months that are currently saved.

The company says the changes will “gradually roll out through the next year.”

If you do decide you want that information in the cloud — say, as a backup for when you get a new phone — the data will be encrypted.

In short, that means Google won’t be able to see that record of where you have been, and that your location will be inaccessible to law enforcement, who have historically been able to access it through legal means such as geofence warrants.

“Geofence warrants are used when the [government] has no suspects, to get some leads,” Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. “So this will likely defeat the technique.”

Users already had some control over their location histories. For one, they are turned off by default, requiring a person to specifically enable it if they want a long-running record of where they have been. And those histories are editable, so you can strike visits to certain places from your personal geographic record.

For some, Google’s announcement takes on more personal value. The move, for example, could help protect people’s privacy in states where access to abortion is outlawed, though still needed.

Last year, the company said that it would delete location history entries for visits to medical facilities like “counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities,” among others, soon after those visits ended. But a Washington Post investigation showed that, as recently as May, Google wasn’t doing that consistently.

Google’s shift to on-device location storage helps mitigate those issues, because no one else will have access to that historical data but you. The company also plans to roll out a feature for Maps that lets users more easily manage activity related to specific or sensitive places — including the ability to delete “searches, directions, visits and shares.”

Some privacy advocates are heartened by the new changes.

“In July 2022, Google promised to delete sensitive location data to protect people seeking abortion care in a post-Roe America, but in the past year and a half, [it] has fallen short,” said Nicole Gill, executive director of the advocacy group Accountable Tech. “We are encouraged by their latest announcement to better protect the privacy of the millions of people who use their products every day.”

While not “perfect,” the announcement is “a very reasonable and positive step toward minimizing how much data Google can collect on user locations and gives people control over their own information,” said Caitlin Seeley George, managing director for Fight for the Future.

But others are still skeptical. Sara Geoghegan, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she thinks the changes Google outlined were “long overdue.” She remains wary of Google’s commitment to keeping people’s sensitive location data safe.

“The devil is in the details, and it remains to be seen whether Google’s implementation stands up to the commitments,” she said. “Unfortunately, Google has repeatedly shown that we can’t trust the company’s pinkie promises to protect privacy when it comes to their invasive data practices.”

For its part, Google says it continually looks for ways to give people more control over their data.





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