Going into settings and turning off your phone’s location will stop all apps and services from tracking your whereabouts. That’s a simple, easy to remember privacy concept. Unfortunately, there’s one small problem. Google has been tracking you anyway. You can take more drastic steps like turning off cellular data or even removing the SIM card to stop this, but the bad news is that even those measures won’t work. A Quartz investigation has discovered that Android phones’ software gathers and sends location data to Google as soon as they connect to the internet. Period.
It started at the beginning of this year, when Google suddenly began tracking the addresses of cell towers near your phone and saving it. It doesn’t matter if location services are turned off, your phone still maintains a connection to nearby towers (even without a SIM card installed). All it takes is an active Wi-Fi connection. This provides Google with your location and travel history, which probably violates the level of privacy that most consumers are comfortable with. Google confirmed the practice after being contacted by Quartz.
Responding by emailing, a spokesman said, “In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery. However, we never incorporated Cell ID into our network sync system, so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID.”
This is what an Android device sends to google about a user’s location.
It’s (very) unclear how this practice could improve message delivery, but what is clear is that it’s a fairly brazen attack on your privacy. One cell tower could only provide an approximate location of a device, such as in rural areas or between cities. Multiple towers within a city could triangulate a position to less than a quarter-mile, however, and track a person’s movements throughout the day. A change in early 2017 to the Firebase Cloud Messaging service, which is owned by Google and runs on Android devices by default, prompted the data collection.
Google also claimed that their messaging service is “distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps.” It’s currently impossible for users to opt out of cell tower data collection.
Google says that the data is encrypted, but what if your phone is hacked or infected with spyware? That could lead to the information being sent to third parties. If you’re a victim of domestic violence or stalking, I’m sure you want your location to be completely turned off when you choose that in settings.
Companies like Facebook aggressively seek out user data for targeted advertising and other services, which is ultimately worth over a trillion dollars to investors. Google itself allows advertisers to use consumers’ location data for targeted advertising, which provides a plausible answer as to why this happened. Now that Google has been busted, they claim to have stopped the practice. If it was an innocent thing to do, why stop now that the secret is out? Scary stuff.