20 October 2018
Android handsets track user movements even when the location services are disabled, a Quartz investigation has revealed. Photo: Bloomberg
Android handsets track user movements even when the location services are disabled, a Quartz investigation has revealed. Photo: Bloomberg

Android devices covertly sending location data to Google: report

Android mobile gadgets send cell tower location data to Google even if the user has disabled location services for apps in the device settings, according to Quartz.

Citing the results of an investigation, the news website also reported that it learnt that location data was being sent even if devices had been reset to factory default settings.

Even if a person takes all precautions — such as turning off location services, not using any app, or not inserting a SIM card — a phone running Android software gathers information about where the user has been, and sends it back to Google whenever the user connects to the internet, the investigation revealed.

There is currently no way for Android users to prevent their location data from being sent to Google, according to the report.

Quartz said a Google spokesperson confirmed the practice when confronted with the findings.

Cell tower addresses were included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months, the spokesperson admitted.

However, the data was never used or stored, the spokesperson claimed, adding that the company is now taking steps to end the practice.

The data sent to Google is encrypted, but it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking, Quartz noted. 

According to the report, the location-tracking practice does not appear to be limited to any particular type of Android phone or tablet.

Rather, Google had been collecting cell tower data from all modern Android devices. 

“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,” Quartz cited the Google spokesperson as saying in an email.

“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.”

By the end of November, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, which consumers cannot disable, according to the company.

Google has earlier faced questions from lawmakers and regulators about the extent to which the company scoops up data on its users.

Last year, a range of budget Android smartphones sold in the US were found to be secretly sending personal data to a third party company based in China, including information about users’ locations, TechCrunch noted.

However, the culprit in that case was commercial firmware pre-installed on the devices, rather than the Android operating system itself.

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