Google Maps can trace your moves down to the very movie you saw at a theater

It makes a guess using your location data and publicly available showtimes.

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Google Maps has a feature called Timeline that uses location data from your phone to produce a list of all the places you've been. Every person with Maps installed on their phone has one, unless you've explicitly disabled the persistent tracking and logging of this data. Now with a recent update, when the coronavirus pandemic ends and you go back to the theater, Timeline will even try to guess the exact movie you saw.

You might find Timeline to be creepy or intrusive, especially because most people probably aren't even aware all this data is being collected. But Google thinks you might find it a useful way to look back and reminisce on your adventures, or figure out the name of that bar you went to last week.


Google knows all — Keep in mind that Timeline's newfound ability to log your cinema history isn't very sophisticated. Maps already knows when you're sitting in the theater, so what it's doing here is simply checking publicly-listed showtimes for that theater to try and guess what you might be watching. Of course it could get this wrong because there are always multiple films playing simultaneously, though Google in theory could look at your search history for hints.

Privacy concerns — The criticism of Timeline has always been that the average person probably isn't aware that this constant logging is even occurring. It'd be one thing if you gave Google express consent to do this, but most people grant Maps access to their location without even looking at the fine print. You could imagine how this type of precise data could be misused if it got into the wrong hands.

Also, Google's real reason for conducting all this tracking is not just to be useful but because this type of data is very valuable to advertisers. If Google knows all the places you've been and how much time you spent there, advertisers can target their messages to precisely the right people. And Google can charge them more.