Quartz reported today that Android phones have been gathering your location data and sending it to Google, even if you turned off location services on your phone and no SIM card inside.
The report states a practice by Google that is very intriguing and quite alarming at the same time. They state that Google was able to track user locations by triangulating which cell towers were at the time servicing the specific device. So basically, even if you had the “location services” turned off, you were still being tracked. Location services are often refer to your GPS location for app usage. For example, when you’re using Google Maps, it uses your location to give you the best routes, or when Uber wants to use your location to let your driver know where to pick you up.
Unfortunately for Android phone users, there are no options for you to turn this off, at all. Since January, all different kinds of Android phones and tablets have been collecting addresses of nearby cell towers and sending all the data encrypted to Google’s push notifications and messaging management system. The information is sent the moment you connect to the internet. This means that even if you don’t have a SIM and you connect to Wi-Fi, your location data that’s been collected on your Android device gets sent off. Did I forget to mention that even if your phones were factory reset, this function still proceeds without a problem?
We reached out to Google and the spokesperson told us in a statement that all modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires mobile country codes and mobile network codes, so basically the tower info called “Cell ID” codes were considered an “additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery.” Google said it discarded all of the cell tower data and didn’t proceed with the plan like they originally wanted to.
A source close to the matter said that Google added this functionality to help improved its Firebase Cloud Messaging. This is where devices have to ping the server at regular intervals to receive messages promptly.
This discovery no doubt is very alarming and surprising because cell tower data is generally held by carrier networks and only shared with outside companies under certain strict conditions. What’s more alarming is that if a user opts to not be tracked, at all, you have no way of never being tracked because your Android device is always collecting location data. You have no safe way to avoid being tracked at all. The best you could potentially do is use burner phones.
Google says that an update that removes this cell tower data-collecting will be rolled out by the end of this month. Will it be really removed though?