Google tracks Android users even with location services turned off

Terry Joseph
November 22, 2017

An investigation by Quartz magazine revealed that Android smartphones are instructed remotely to share user location data with Google even when location services are turned off.

The practice that Google has been employing has potential dangers in that a particularly skilled individual could use multiple cell towers to triangulate someone's location to within or quarter-of-a-mile or closer. That information has been sent back to Google on a regular basis and, according to the report, has been the case in modern Android devices since the early part of this year. Google said it discarded all of the cell tower data and didn't proceed with the plan like they originally wanted to. Google confirmed that it has been doing this since the beginning of 2017, and say that it will end the practice by the end of this month. The company had been "looking into" using the data to speed up message delivery.

Back in January of this year, Google started collecting user location data another way-bypassing its permission structure that allowed users the ability to opt out of having their location tracked. Even if the user actively turned off location services, Google can still access their location and movements without their knowledge. The data provides a way to categorize and label people (sometimes in unflattering terms) such as: financial newsletter subscriber, allergy sufferer, "financially challenged", Twitter user with more than 250 friends, and "working-class moms". When Android devices are connected to a WiFi network, they will send the tower addresses to Google even if they don't have SIM cards installed. Specifically, Google is collecting addresses from nearby cellular towers. Google said that it never stored or used the information though. Experts explained that a single cell tower can only offer an approximate location of a smartphone user, but with three towers in range and a method called triangulation, that user's location can be easily spotted.

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As for what's being collected, the data is not as accurate as it could be. "Perhaps it is time for the USA to consider regulations similar to the forthcoming GDPR in the European Union to institute greater transparency around the collection of personal data, including location, and providing a mechanism for users to have greater control over what data gets stored and where".

Cell tower locations are very important, although not a very precise indicator of where you might be.

Other reports by Free-Prsite

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