Google found to be collecting Android device location data even with location services turned off

By | 21st November 2017
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Typically when you disable a setting on your phone, like Wi-Fi or location services, you think that that feature is turned off. It turns out that that's not necessarily the case with Android devices, though.

It's been discovered that Android devices have been gathering location data and sending it back to Google, even if location settings have been turned off. That's according to a report from Quartz, who says that this issue has affected all modern Android devices since early 2017.

The data being collected is the addresses of nearby cellular towers. While it would be difficult to pinpoint a person's precise location with that info, you could use data from multiple towers to triangulate a location to within about a quarter mile.

This location info was being collected from devices even if location services are disable and without a SIM card installed. These devices will send the location data to Google each time they reach a new cell tower if they've got a cellular connection, or whenever they connect to Wi-Fi if there's no SIM card installed.

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Google confirmed that it's collecting location data from all Android devices, saying that it "began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery" back in January 2017.

A source speaking to Quartz said that cell tower location data was being sent to Google following a change in the Firebase Cloud Messaging service, which is owned by Google and is used to send notifications and messages. 

Google said that it plans to cease collecting this cell tower location data from Android devices — at least as it pertains to this service — by the end of November.

The issue here is clearly that Google has been collecting location data from users even if those people disable location services. Some people don't like to be tracked, and while the data collected by Google may not pinpoint a person's location, it can narrow down the area a person is in by quite a bit. And while this data is encrypted as it's sent to Google, it's possible that the device could be hacked or infected with spyware and be forced to send that location data to a third party.