Google collects Android device location even if location services are turned off

Posted November 22, 2017

Factory resetting the smartphone and disabling the location services won't work as devices both on mobile data or on Wi-Fi are said to send location data to Google when near a cell tower.

The data collection was uncovered in an investigation by Quartz magazine, and Google confirmed that phones collect the addresses of nearby phone towers.

Google says using Cell ID codes could help further improve the speed and performance of message delivery on Android phones.

Even if you've had location services turned off on your Android phone, Google knows where you've been.

The data was gathered as part of an effort to find out how often a phone should "ping" a cell tower to stay connected to Google's servers, a process Google calls "heartbeat analysis", Google says. 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.

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Google tracked Android users' even with location services disabled

According to the Google spokesperson, the company's system that controls its push notifications and messages is "distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device's location to apps". They were never used or stored and the company is taking steps to end the practice.

The company also said that the cell tower data is generally encrypted.

This isn't the first time Google's run into issues where it's failed to clearly inform users on what kind of data it's collecting and how it's doing so, and it definitely won't be the last. But knowing the address of at least three nearby cell towers could result in the exact location of that device via a method known as triangulation. Loose restrictions allow law enforcement in many states to obtain cell tower location information without a warrant until an upcoming Supreme Court case will ultimately decide if this will remain legal.

But by using data from multiple towers, a location can be triangulated within a radius of around 0.5 miles (0.8 km).

Google admitted to developing a system that would be able to track user locations despite users choosing to opt out of such a feature but said it never went through with implementing the system. Check out Google's Privacy Checkup page to edit what data you're sharing with the public, your friends, or even advertisers. This could be common practice in urban areas where cell towers are denser.

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