Google to end covert tracking of Android devices

22 Nov 2017

Cell towers have been sending data from Android devices to Google. Image: Anucha Cheechang/Shutterstock

Privacy concerns emerge as Google confirms that it tracks Android device locations regardless of user settings.

Location services can be really useful. Checking Google Maps in a new city or sending people directions in remote areas can make life a lot easier.

However, there is another side of the feature that many privacy advocates are keen to emphasise: the fact that your whereabouts can be monitored by external parties on a near-continuous basis.

Users may have previously thought that by turning their location services off that they would not be tracked, but a new report from Quartz shows that is not the case.

According to the report, phones running Android still gather location-based data and send this back to Google when they are connected to the internet.

Google has informed Quartz that the practice will cease by the end of November.

Data collected even if location services are disabled

Quartz said that Google confirmed the practice had been ongoing since early 2017, and Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers, even when your location services are switched off.

Android devices that have location services disabled or have had a factory reset, and even devices that don’t have a SIM card, are likely subject to this data collection.

As long as there is a mobile data or Wi-Fi connection, devices will send Google their location when they are in range of a new cellular tower.

Privacy implications

It is not yet clear how the data string transmitted with the cellular tower addresses can be used to improve message delivery, and it raises serious concerns about the privacy of users who choose to have their location services switched off, but are still subjected to tracking methods such as this.

Google’s privacy policy states: “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.”

It’s important to note here that the examples supplied by Google refer to specific apps such as Google Maps as opposed to the Android OS. Also, the Wi-Fi access and cell tower link only mentions those who have location services enabled on their devices.

Although the information is encrypted and, as Google says, not stored, this incident highlights the lack of transparency from such a large company around letting users know what exactly happens to their data.

Updated, 1.20pm, 22 November 2017: This article was updated to include information about Google’s confirmed cessation of this data collection practice.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects