Google admits to tracking users’ locations

Android phones have been collecting information about their users’ whereabouts and sending it to Google since the start of 2017, according to news site Quartz.

Google admits to tracking users' locations

The site reports that even when location services were disabled, locations of nearby cell towers were logged and sent to Google by the system Android uses to manage messages and push notifications.

“Even devices that had been reset to factory default settings and apps, with location services disabled, were observed by Quartz sending nearby cell-tower addresses to Google,” it explains.

“Devices with a cellular data or WiFi connection appear to send the data to Google each time they come within range of a new cell tower. When Android devices are connected to a WiFi network, they will send the tower addresses to Google even if they don’t have SIM cards installed,” it continues.

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The discovery has significant privacy implications for Android users, who might reasonably have expected for their location not to be tracked if they turned off location services and had no SIM in the device. However, as Quartz highlights, a quick read of Google’s privacy policy about location sharing does appear to cover the company’s behaviour:

“When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location. 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.”

When approached by Quartz, Google admitted to collecting location data, but claimed that it had not used or stored any of it.

A spokesperson told the site, “In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery…However, 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 said that by the end of November Android devices would no longer send cell tower information to the company. Of course, if you’ve ever enabled Google Location History, Google will continue to log your whereabouts.

To disable this feature, open Google Maps from your phone and select ‘Your timeline’ in the main menu. Next, tap the three-dot button, Settings and swipe up until you see ‘Location history is on’. Tap this and you can toggle which devices log your location. To remove all your location history, tap back once and then select ‘Delete all Location History’.

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