Google has admitted to collecting the location data of Android devices, even when users choose not to allow it.
Users have always had the choice of stopping tech companies from collecting data on them in exchange to giving up the benefits of certain services. In this case, however, it appears that Google has been tracking the location of Android users, whether they like it or not.
Google Always Tracks Location Of Android Users
An investigation by Quartz revealed that Google is always tracking the location of Android devices, even when users have turned off the location services option, closed all apps, and removed their carrier's SIM card. Even an Android device fresh from a factory reset is not excluded from the tracking.
These precautions are done by users who prefer to keep their locations private. However, it apparently does nothing, as Android devices are still able to collect location data and send them back to Google if they are connected to the internet.
According to Quartz, Google has been collecting the information of cellular towers near Android devices since the start of the year. Google confirmed that it is doing this, and a spokesperson for the company said that the cellular tower addresses are used to manage push notification and messages. The location data was never used or stored, the spokesperson said, adding that Google will now take steps to shut down the practice by the end of November.
A spokesperson told The Verge that the cellular tower data was supposed to make message delivery faster, but Google decided to ditch the plan. A source, meanwhile, claimed that the cellular tower data was used to improve its Firebase Cloud Messaging, which needed regular pings to the server to keep messages arriving promptly.
In any case, the data that Google has collected is enough to identify an Android device's specific location within a quarter-mile radius at most. The security implications are massive, especially with the risk of the data falling to the hands of criminal hackers.
The Fight To Keep User Privacy
The discovered Google practice again places the spotlight on the struggles of keeping user privacy in the modern age.
In Germany, regulators have banned smartwatches for kids and even urged parents to destroy them, as they can be used to spy on people. There have also been allegations that Facebook is secretly using the microphones of mobile devices to listen to conversations.
Google is no stranger to user privacy issues, with the Google Home Mini smart speaker found to be recording everything all the time. The company quickly disabled the feature that resulted in the privacy breach, but as with Quartz's investigation on location tracking, the question is whether Google would have done so if the problem was not discovered.