Apparently, Google tracks location data of users who turned off location services on their devices. Those who turn that feature off generally don’t want to be tracked, so it certainly seems like a violation of privacy. Google is now doing damage control, although the blowback from this issue probably won’t last long.
Here’s how Google tracks location data
Quartz conducted an investigation and found that Google tracks location data of its users via cell towers. Android phones have been collecting the locations of the cell towers that are close to users since the beginning of the year. The operating system then sends that location data to Google—meaning that every precaution taken to keep one’s location from being tracked is in vain.
Most smartphone and tablet users expect Google, Apple and other tech firms whose services they use to track their locations. However, the problem is that Google tracks the locations of users who turned off location services and even those who didn’t have a SIM card in their devices. Apparently, devices without SIM cards connecting them to mobile carriers still send user location data to Google. According to Quartz, they do this whenever they are connected to a Wi-Fi network.
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Google confirms the report
A Google spokesperson confirmed to Quartz that Android has been sending cell tower addresses to the company for the last 11 months. These addresses are included in the data that’s sent to the Google system that manages messages and push notifications for smartphones running on Android. The spokesperson said that even though Google tracks location data in Android devices, it has never stored or used the data that was collected.
The company is apparently preparing to end the collection of this data following Quartz’s investigation. By the end of this month, Android will supposedly stop sending the cell tower addresses to Google, or it will at least make it an option to turn this tracking off.
Why Google tracks location data
A Google spokesperson said that they were trying to see if “Cell ID codes” would work as “an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery,” although they claim that they never ended up incorporating the data into their sync system. It’s unclear exactly how tracking the addresses of cell towers could improve the delivery of messages.
However, a source reportedly told Quartz that Google added in the collection of cell tower addresses as an improvement for its Firebase Cloud Messaging. The system pings the server regularly so that messages can be delivered without delay, The Verge added. Firebase Cloud Messaging is set to run by default on Android smartphones.
The fact that Google tracks location data for those who think they’ve protected themselves is quite concerning as far as privacy goes. It’s particularly interesting that the company suddenly decided to change this practice after it was discovered. Location data is extremely valuable for marketers, so if you’ve seen an almost ad-like notification pop up on your Android phone when you’ve been somewhere, you now have an idea of how Google has been doing it.
The big question now is when the privacy-related lawsuits will start popping up.