Google admits it tracked user location data even when the setting was turned off

Android phones gather your location data and send it to Google, even if you’ve turned off location services and don’t have a SIM card, Quartz reported today.

The term “location services” oftentimes refers to exact GPS data for app usage, such as Google Maps finding your best commute route, or Uber figuring out exactly where you’re standing to let drivers know your pickup point. Quartz’s report details a practice in which Google was able to track user locations by triangulating which cell towers were currently servicing a specific device.

Since January, all kinds of Android phones and tablets have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers and sending the encrypted data to Google’s push notifications and messaging management system when connected to the internet. It’s a practice that customers can’t opt out of — even if their phones are factory reset.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge that all modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires mobile country codes and mobile network codes, so tower info called “Cell ID” codes were considered an “additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery.” Google ultimately discarded the cell tower data and didn’t go through with the original plan.

A source familiar with the matter stated that Google added the cell tower data-collecting feature to improve its Firebase Cloud Messaging, where devices have to ping the server at regular intervals in order to receive messages promptly.

The findings are surprising, given that cell tower data is usually held by carrier networks and only shared with outside companies under extreme circumstances. Through Google’s practices this year, an individual’s particular location within a quarter-mile radius or less could be determined with the addresses of multiple cell towers. This has particular security implications for individuals who wish to not be tracked, meaning that the safest way to avoid being tracked at all is probably to stick to burner phones. It could also create a bigger target for hackers looking to obtain personal information.

An update that removes this cell tower data-collecting feature will roll out by the end of this month, according to Google. Google’s terms of service, at the time of publish, still vaguely state, “When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location” using “various technologies... including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell tower.” Google does offer details on how to control Google’s location access points. But as shown by its ToS, the company could admittedly do a better job of making this clearer and simpler for its general consumers.

Comments

Well well well.

We’d have to be crazy naïve to believe Google is the only one that does this…

Wow, such a big news! Also, it’s my first time surfing The Internet! Add me on MSN!

Attention to period detail appreciated.

No one will care. If you do think this is an issue you probably already aren’t in the Google ecosystem.

Oh they would care…if it was Apple or Microsoft. There’s this weird double standard with Google. When they mess up, people just kinda shrug and say "what are ya going to do!" and move on. Yet there are no end to the complaints when Microsoft or Apple get caught in some kind of drama.

People are still going to justify I.T as "Googles conveniences outweigh the privacy issues!". There has to be a limit right? We trip about the government doing this or that but when I.T comes to Google excuses fall out the sky or people just hand wave I.T away.

There has to be a limit right?

Fam, you’re WAY underestimating the lengths at which Google apologists’ will go to cover for said company’s misgivings’.

You are absolutely correct and that is what can be infuriating. Tech nerds rage about government privacy but excuse corporate privacy issues like Google who are huge offenders of privacy.

Indeed he is, it’s closer to being right up there with Apple apologists.

Those whataboutists, tho….

Why do you keep typing I.T???

Probably another iOS 11 glitch.

Don’t you get I.T?

iOS 11 glitch.

LOL, that’s funny.

No one will care because that’s the state of the world we live in. Just because you turn off a toggle…..doesn’t mean all activity that you thought that toggle did stops.

For example if I turn off WiFi on my Android phone geo-location services still are on. That goes the same for my iPhone. Yes, both of my devices are still sending some type of location data to backend servers. It’s nothing new.

For example if I turn off WiFi on my Android phone geo-location services still are on. That goes the same for my iPhone.

huh? Turning off all location data, you would expect not to be tracked.

The same can’t be said for turning off wifi and expecting location data to be gone. The phone obviously still has gps /glonass and cell towers to find itself with.

He means that if you turn off wifi on iPhone, it’s not actually off. It is still being used for location. Also if you turn off wifi on android, it can still be used for location tracking (there’s a toggle for that in settings).

He talks about how flipping a toggle that seems obvious (turn off wifi) does not do exactly what you expect (wifi will still be on and used for some things).

hecareth You really have no clue what your talking about. That is not how location services work on either platform.

Turning off WiFi has nothing to do with location services. All that means is instead of using WiFi to assist in getting your location fast, it has to use the GPS only to get your location.

Having location services off does not stop anyone from getting your location by IP address and you might be surprised how accurate that has gotten.

Geolocation services are not dependant on wifi, it merely increases the accuracy. Not sure why you’re implying the two go hand in hang.

I am amazed how nobody understood that your wifi example is a showcase of a toggle not stopping all services it relates to, NOT about how wifi is equal to geolocation.

No one would care if it was Apple either. Apple shipped a phone with a defective calculator and keyboard and people basically laughed it off and kept using their iPhones.

Come to think of it, Apple was found to do something very similar several years ago, plus they stored the location data on the phone unencrypted…and most consumers didn’t care.

https://www.wired.com/2011/04/apple-iphone-tracking/

from the article you just posted:

According to Apple’s letter, geodata is being tracked and transmitted to Apple only if a customer toggles the Location Services option in the settings menu to "On." If it’s off, no location-based information will be collected.
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