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Google Knows Where You’ve Been, but Does It Know Who You Are?

Category: Science & Tech,Technology

Takeout offers some straightforward utility: The ability to download your photos, for example, lets you upload them elsewhere. And it is genuinely good that Google doesn’t hold your contacts hostage. Google also makes it possible for users to browse their recorded location history. This interface is very Google-ish in that it makes a huge amount of information feel approachable; it is less like Google in the way it makes the material feel useless and hardly worth investigating. In Takeout, however, location data can be exported in raw form. In my case, this produced a file containing hundreds of thousands of entries, each encoding time (down to the millisecond), latitude and longitude (with an estimate of their accuracy) and a guess at my activity (“ON_BICYCLE,” for instance).

Laid out in a vast spreadsheet and isolated from Google’s own interfaces, this data becomes both conceptually clear, as quintessential surveillance, and literally incomprehensible. In 2014, a high school student named Theo Patt released a tool, Location History Visualizer, to give shape to this information, placing users’ entire Google location histories on an intensely color-coded map, like something that might hang on the wall at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It became a minor sensation, and tens of thousands of visits to his site followed. It was a rare chance for Google users to see their own slice of the company’s same old data, presented just outside the context in which it was gathered, rendering it utterly new.

When you stare down from on high at the last few years of your life — as recorded by your laptop and phone, and then self-subpoenaed from your Google account — your first impulse is forensic. And whether you assume the role of defense, prosecution, judge or juror, you’ll have plenty to work with. If you fully opt in to certain Google products (in my case, various Google apps on an iPhone, including Google Maps), years of location history will be rendered as glowing circles, shaded from violet to green to yellow to red and overlaid on a map of the world. To explore this data is to toggle, in seconds, among wildly disparate emotional states: surprise, disorientation, curiosity, disappointment.

I first looked at my map zoomed all the way out and thought, That’s it? A glowing red blast radius surrounded New York City, where I live; fainter orbs floated over towns where I visited family. That time in Nashville, for a conference. A failed reporting trip to Northern California. A few vacations, some layovers at airports, some weekend trips near the city. The full force of Google’s apparatus had been summoned here, it seemed, to tell me to travel more. (According to Google, the company does not share users’ location histories with advertisers, nor does it serve ads to users based on specific places in their location histories.)

Then I zoomed in. Trips to see family were rendered in cold detail. They showed a town where I spent most of the first 18 years of my life reduced to the skeletal routine of a repeat outside visitor. The purple haze over the airport resolved, on a closer look, into dots at Gates C18 and C25, where I’ve arrived or departed, and from or to which I walked to use a bathroom near Gate C9, just before Christmas in 2017. Another faint trail led to my mother’s home, which glowed red; a few jogs around the neighborhood ringed the house in blue. I could pick out the restaurants in town that we went to together and the bar downtown where I met an old friend. I followed a mysterious series of faint dots down the highway, remembering halfway that they would lead to the regional fast-food place I loved as a kid. I zoomed in on a dot just north of the house and found myself at church, for the yearly family Christmas service. I scrolled in further and saw my annual stations: the parking lot, the chapel, the pews just left of the lectern and finally the columbarium to visit my dad’s remains.

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