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Google collects Android device location even if location services are turned off

22 November 2017, 01:26 | Hattie Nash

Google caught receiving location data from Android phones

Android phones track your every move

Google has been busted for tracking Android device owners' whereabouts, even when the location services have been disabled. Quartz's report details a practice in which Google was able to track user locations by triangulating which cell towers were now servicing a specific device.

Quartz found that Google has essentially been pinging nearby cellular towers and retrieving that info through the Firebase Cloud Messaging service that manages push notifications and messages. In an email, a Google spokesperson added, "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". Google confirmed the practice to Quartz. For its part, the company says it will stop collecting this specific data before the end of November of this year. The data collected is encrypted, but the information still likely contains a unique identifier that when paired with the location info collected, does pose some security risk. The cellular data and ID codes were being collected in order to help the performance and speed of messages.

However, it does seem to broadly comply with Google's privacy policy, which warns that "When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location". Google does offer details on how to control Google's location access points, though after reading through the instructions, the company could admittedly do a better job of making this clearer and simpler for its general consumers. It's a practice that customers can't opt out of - even if their phones are factory reset.

"Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers can not disable", the spokesperson reportedly said. The company has an app as well as a website for accessing the Google Calendar. Again, this is all still happening even if you have turned off location services on your phone. The operating system then sends that location data to Google-meaning that every precaution taken to keep one's location from being tracked is in vain.

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But by using data from multiple towers, a location can be triangulated within about a quarter-mile radius.

The fact that Google tracks location data for those who think they've protected themselves is quite concerning as far as privacy goes. Even if they didn't have a SIM card and weren't connected, these devices would transmit the data the next time they were in range of WiFi.

Quartz experts couldn't tell how cell tower addresses could have improved an IM service.

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