Google has been tracking locations of Android phones even with location services turned off, even when no SIM card has been inserted in the phone, an investigation carried out by Quartz revealed.
According to the report, Google has been tracking and collecting information including addresses of nearby cell towers since the beginning of 2017. When Quartz reached out to Google, it confirmed the practice.
The report states that Google – a subsidiary of Alphabet – has access to data beyond “a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.”
“The cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notification and messages on Android phones for the last 11 months,” Quartz reported, citing a Google spokesperson.
However, responding to the queries via email, the Google spokesperson explained; “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,” adding that the Cell ID information was not incorporated into the Google system and was immediately discarded.
Google has stated that the practice of requesting Cell ID information will be discontinued by the end of November 2017.
Most modern smartphones track locations to enable applications to send personalised location-based information from weather forecasts to information about nearby business and traffic updates. These permissions can be denied by users not willing to be tracked.
However, the practice that Google was indulging in did not give users this option, nor the knowledge that they were being tracked.
The investigation discovered that devices that had been factory reset and where location tracking had been disabled were still sending information to Google every time they connected to a new cell tower. In the case of phones without SIM cards, the information was sent to Google every time the device was connected to a WiFi network.
Security experts expressed concern as to why the collection of such data was not by consent and the option to opt out was not given to users. “It seems quite intrusive for Google to be collecting such information that is only relevant to carrier networks when there are no SIM card or enabled services,” said Matthew Hickey a security expert at Hacker House while speaking to Quartz.