Search engine collects location data on Android users, even when location services are switched off
Google has confirmed it has been able to track the location of all Android users since the beginning of the year.
According to a report from Quartz, even if Android users turn off their location services, do not insert any SIM cards, or haven’t used any apps, Google is still able to track Android locations and movements, using the unique addresses of mobile phone masts (called Cell ID).
The search engine has been able to do this since the beginning of 2017.
Google apparently does this tracking apparently in order to ensure the delivery of push notifications.
“Many people realize that smartphones track their locations,” said Quartz. “But what if you actively turn off location services, haven’t used any apps, and haven’t even inserted a carrier SIM card?
“Even if you take all of those precautions, phones running Android software gather data about your location and send it back to Google when they’re connected to the internet.”
It said that as a result, Google is “has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.”
It said that it had observed the data collection occur and contacted Google about the matter.
Google confirmed the practice, and a Google spokesperson said that cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months.
“To ensure messages and notifications are received quickly, modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires the use of Mobile Country Codes (MCC) and Mobile Network Codes (MNC)”, the spokesperson told Silicon. “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. MCC and MNC provide necessary network information for message and notification delivery and are distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps.”
By the end of this month (November), Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google
It is worth remembering that cell tower locations will never be as exact as a GPS signal for example, as a single cell tower only provides an approximation of where a mobile device actually is. Multiple towers are usually needed to triangulate location to within a quarter-mile radius.
Last year reports from both Krowdthink and the Open Rights Group found that the vast majority of British citizens are being tracked day and night through their mobile devices, and are at risk of being targeted by criminals if this location data should fall into the wrong hands.
Customers do have a legal right to opt out of location tracking for marketing purposes, and the European General Data Protection Regulation gives users the right to demand that their data is deleted.
Privacy campaigners often advice that users turn off wireless Internet when they are not using it to avoid disclosing their location to nearby hotspots, which often register a user’s location even if they do not log in.
Are you a security pro? Try our quiz!