Even if you have turned off location services and do not have a SIM card, Android phones gather your location data and send the information to Google, according to Quartz.
On Tuesday, “location services” refers to exact GPS data for app usage, such as the information Google Maps gives you while you are looking for directions or Uber sharing where your driver will pick you up. But, a new Quartz report reveals a practice in which Google was able to track user locations by triangulating cell towers which were served a specific device.
Since January, several Android phones and tablets have been collecting the addresses of all nearby cellular towers and sending the data to Google’s push notifications and messaging management system when connected to the internet. It is a service that consumers cannot opt out of, even when their phones are factory reset.
According to Quartz:
While information about a single cell tower can only offer an approximation of where a mobile device actually is, multiple towers can be used to triangulate its location to within about a quarter-mile radius, or to a more exact pinpoint in urban areas, where cell towers are closer together…
Although the data sent to Google is encrypted, it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking. Each phone has a unique ID number, with which the location data can be associated.
As Gizmodo pointed out, someone could potentially use the data that a person did not even know they were transmitting over their device to discover that person’s location. “Imagine if someone who’s in witness protection just got a new Galaxy S8 and they do all the right things to protect their privacy. A hacker with the proper know-how and determination could potentially get within a quarter mile of them.”
A Google spokesperson told The Verge in a statement that all modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires mobile country codes and mobile network codes, so tower info called “Cell ID” were considered an “additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery.” According to The Verge, “Google ultimately discarded the cell tower data and didn’t go through with the original plan.”
A source close to the matter told Gizmodo that the feature was intended to improve battery life and the timeliness of receiving messages. By locating a nearby tower, the phone would not have to search for a new tower as often, which could drain battery life. But Google, according to Gizmodo’s source, never decided to implement it, and the team has removed the feature altogether.
A spokesperson for Google added that by the end of November will complete the update.
It is important to point out in Google’s terms of service, at the time of publish, still vaguely state, “When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location” using “various technologies… including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell tower.