Android phones still track you when location services are off

As part of an in-depth investigation for Quartz, reporter Keith Collins discovered that, since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby mobile transmitter towers.

Google acknowledged that smartphones have been collecting cell tower addresses and sending the data to its servers for the past 11 months.

"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", the Google spokesperson said. Google can still collect location data even if a SIM card isn't installed in the phone, and there is no known way to opt out of the collection.

A Google spokesperson stressed that the tower info, known as Cell ID codes, wasn't being used and was tossed out as soon as it was received. Google claims it is being sent to the same system that manages push notifications and the messages in Android. Still collecting data when the user has explicitly toggled it off is not a nice move by Google.

When it comes to your location data, sometimes you just want to keep things to yourself and not send every single data point regarding your whereabouts to the cloud.

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It can be safely assumed that all the users using an Android smartphone must have seen or used the Google Calendar app and service as well. This means that even if you don't have a SIM and you connect to Wi-Fi, your location data that's been collected on your Android device gets sent off.

The information was never stored, and the practice will end by the end of November, she wrote. Even devices that have gone through a factory reset were found to be transmitting private data back to the company. Triangulating between cell towers will reveal a device's location to a high degree of accuracy, especially in urban areas where towers are more common.

However, it does seem to broadly comply with Google's privacy policy, which warns that "When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location". Through Google's practices this year, an individual's particular location within a quarter-mile radius or less could be determined with the addresses of multiple cell towers.

This is a troubling practice to be engaged in, no matter how temporary the storage of cell site data.