Google collects Android location data even if location service is off

Smartphones are fun to use, but what if someone is watching every step you take and collecting data of wherever you go? That is what Google has been up to. While the tech and search engine giant has failed to tackle its malware problem, the company has been in hot waters for another reason.

Google is collecting your location data

If you are an Android user, according to news website Quartz your device has been quietly tracking your location data for the past 11 months and sending it to Google even if you had its “Location services” turned off.

What is more unsettling is that a device would collect user’s location data without inserting a SIM card or even if there are no apps installed on it – All it requires is the device should be connected to the Internet that and it will do the magic for Google.

Quartz’s report further states that the illegal location data collection has been going on since January 2017 through Android smartphone and tablets who collect the addresses of nearby cellular towers and send the data to Google in an encrypted format to its push notifications and messaging management system. Moreover, even the factory reset would not stop the device from sending data to Google, and there is no way out of it since the device never shows opt-out option.

Google admits 

When contacted by Quartz, Google’s spokesperson admitted collecting users location data but claimed that the company never used or stored the data. “By the end of November, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable,” said the spokesperson.

In an email conversation with Quartz Google’s spokesperson said that “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.”

An unknown source told Quartz 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 quickly. Firebase Cloud Messaging is a Google-owned system that comes with every Android device by default.

Google will not do it anymore

Now that Quartz has caught Google, the company has vowed to stop using Android devices to send cell-tower location data by the end of November. Therefore, expect an update in next few days and upgrade your phone to the latest version even though it will be still uncertain if Google really stopped collecting your location data.

It is still unclear how Google received data from cell-tower addresses since specific carrier networks own a tower. A single tower can only offer an approximation of where a mobile device actually is; multiple towers can be used to triangulate its location to within about a quarter-mile radius. Either way, it is indeed a serious privacy and security threat for those who do not like to be tracked, especially those who are a victim of stalking and domestic abuse, etc.

Google collects Android location data even if location services is off
Logs shared by Quartz

It is true that the data is being sent in an encrypted format, but state-sponsored elements interested in such data can find some way to get their hands on it, either by using a sophisticated spyware or hacking tools leaked in data breaches including the NSA’s.

This is not the first time when Google has been caught collecting users’ data. In the past, its Chrome browser was found listening to user conversations without permission while its latest Google Home Mini smart speaker was also found secretly recording conversations.

Waqas

Waqas Amir is a Milan-based cybersecurity journalist with a passion for covering latest happenings in cyber security and tech world. In addition to being the founder of this website, Waqas is also into gaming, reading and investigative journalism.