Google Maps gets Incognito fig leaf: We'll give you vague peace of mind if you hold off those privacy laws

Location data is likely to remain accessible to web ads giant, network service providers, apps

After last year acknowledging that Google Maps stores location data even when told not to, the Chocolate Factory plans to give Maps the same misunderstood form of privacy offered by its Chrome browser, otherwise known as Incognito mode.

"When you turn on Incognito mode in Maps, your Maps activity on that device, like the places you search for, won’t be saved to your Google Account and won’t be used to personalize your Maps experience," said Eric Miraglia, director of product management in Google's privacy and data protection office, in a blog post.

Incognito mode, coming to Google Maps for Android this month and Google Maps for iOS "soon," will pause real-time location sharing, as well as relevant notifications. It will prevent updates to users' Location History and any Maps personalization. But it won't provide the freedom from scrutiny implied by its name.

Just as Chrome's Incognito mode offers only partial privacy – it prevents Chrome from saving browser activity but does nothing to prevent websites, network operators and internet service providers from tracking browsing activity – Maps Incognito mode won't stop ISPs, apps, voice search or other Google services from capturing location data, if granted permission or able to do so regardless. And it won't stop the selling of location data.

The Register asked Google how Maps Incognito mode might affect the kind of information it could turn over to authorities if presented with a lawful demand for data. According to the internet titan, it would not be able to provide Location History Data from a mobile device using Incognito mode. But as this feature is device specific, other gadgets on the same Google Account may be able to provide location data if the user has opted to enable Location History for the account. And the web giant could still produce other types of data that could be used to derive an approximate location (an IP address, for example) if required to do so under a valid legal process, as detailed here.

If your threat model fear is that other people who might use your device and shudder at your shameful travels, then Maps Incognito mode may help. If your concern is surveillance capitalism and the ad-industrial complex, this isn't the privacy you're looking for.

Maps' newfound sense of modesty comes amid Google's broader effort to shore up security and privacy across its various platforms, even as it lobbies against privacy regulation.

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YouTube is also showing signs of data shame. After adding a data retention setting to the Location History and Web & App Activity records in Google Accounts in May, the Chocolate Factory has just extended auto-deletion to YouTube History. Video watchers can now select a data retention period of three months, 18 months or manual deletion - for those who prefer to wait until investigators are knocking at the door.

Meanwhile, Google has taken its Password Checkup extension and baked it into the password manager it offers through Chrome and Google Accounts. Password Checkup will check to see whether user passwords have shown up in public password dumps, whether they're weak and whether they've been reused across multiple sites.

Consistent with Google's newfound sensitivity about info hoarding, Google Assistant will soon be empowered to delete data on demand, though only a week's worth.

"In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to delete Assistant activity from your Google Account just by saying things like 'Hey Google, delete the last thing I said to you' or 'Hey Google, delete everything I said to you last week,'" said Miraglia.

If you want to delete more than a week's worth of smart speaker banter, Google Assistant will balk and direct you to do it yourself through your Google Account. The fun begins next week for English users and next month in other languages. ®

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