As part of broader privacy push, Google gives users more control over location data

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One of the major themes of Facebook’s F8 developer conference and this week’s Google I/O is privacy. Location is a sensitive and central part of the broader privacy discussion. Survey data have repeatedly shown that users care about who gets access to their location data and want more control over it.

Android has historically given developers broad access to device location and provided less transparency and control for users than the iPhone (although there’s been some backpedaling by Apple). But with the forthcoming Android Q, smartphone owners will soon have much more control over location permissions. (There are a ton of new features in the OS update, which I won’t talk about here.)

What’s changing for users. At the most basic level, Google is making it easier for users to find privacy controls, by tapping on the profile picture in the upper right corner of various Google products (search, Maps, YouTube, etc.). Google explained that soon “you’ll be able to review and delete your location activity data directly in Google Maps.”

There will also be an auto-delete capability for location history. You’ll be able to tell Google whether you want your data saved for three months or 18 months (it’s not clear whether there will be other choices). And Google Maps will get Incognito Mode, meaning user location won’t be tracked or saved for the places visited. It’s not clear how this might impact ad targeting or analytics.

With Android Q there will be an option to share location only while the app is in use, as on the iPhone. When users quit the app location won’t continue to run in the background. Other location permissions will be “all the time” and “deny”:

  • “All the time” – this means an app can access location at any time
  • “While in use” – this means an app can access location only while the app is being used
  • “Deny” – this means an app cannot access location
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Android Q will also remind users that location is running in the background if “always allow” was the user’s initial settings choice. This feature used to exist on the iPhone but was removed, reportedly following developer complaints.

What app publishers should know. During a developer session on Android Q’s location features, Google said and recommended the following about obtaining location permissions:

  • Any app/developer use of location will require permission.
  • Don’t use or ask for location if the app doesn’t need it.
  • Only ask for the permission required for the app to function (argument against “always”).
  • Ask for location in context, so the user understands why it’s being requested.
  • If you need all-the-time location, start with “while in use” and later request “all the time”.

Why we should care. Google is tightening third-party data access, making it more difficult for publishers and developers to easily capture background location. Apps will still be able to get location to function, but users will likely default to “while in use” or “deny.” Gone is Android’s binary “all or nothing” approach.

This will likely mean that fewer apps will be able to access user location overall. It will also mean fewer apps will have background location and be able to monetize that in the broader ecosystem (i.e., by selling it). From the advertiser perspective, it will affect location-based ad targeting opportunities across the app ecosystem. These changes will probably also impact the CPMs that developers and publishers are able to get — ad requests with location pay more than those without.

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About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.



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