According to Quartz, Android phones have been recording cellular addresses (or "Cell ID codes" as Google calls them) from cellular towers even if users have disabled the "Location Services" setting that accesses the Global Positioning System to pinpoint where the device has been.
It was found that this was due to the Google collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers and this data being sent back to the tech giant. They state that Google was able to track user locations by triangulating which cell towers were at the time servicing the specific device. We use various technologies to determine location, including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell towers.
Google is no stranger to controversies over privacy, but a new revelation about Android phones is pretty chilling. The data on cell towers is sent to the system that manages communications and push notification.
After being contacted by Quartz, Google says it's now taking steps to end the practice by the end of November. Also, Google has promised to end the behavior. The company had been "looking into" using the data to speed up message delivery.
As a result, Google's parent company Alphabet whose original moto was "Don't be Evil, ' has access to consumer data that is at odds with users" privacy expectations. Users did not have the ability to opt-in or opt-out of this location data collection.
A spokesperson for Google said the data was never stored and promised to end the practice.
The revelation comes as Google and other internet companies are under fire from lawmakers and regulators, including for the extent to which they vacuum up data about users. "Perhaps it is time for the United States 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".
Even if Google didn't use the data itself, security commenters say that collecting it without permission is potentially risky.
New details about the length to which Google tracks Android phones surfaced today from Quartz, which reports that Android phones will track your location even if you disable location services and even if you aren't logged into the phone. How?
Cell ID data is different from Location Services, which activates the Global Positioning System to identify where the phone's been. The cell tower data is usually held by carrier networks. This could be common practice in urban areas where cell towers are denser.