Think You Can't Be Tracked If Location Services Are Disabled? Hello, Google!

Quartz has confirmed that, starting in early 2017, Android phones have been sending the addresses of nearby cellular towers and sending it back to Google, regardless of your location sharing settings - even if you didn't have cell service turned on and hadn't used any apps.

Cell tower addresses were collected by the same system that Google uses to manage push notifications and messages, a spokesperson for the company told Quartz.

The practice that Google has been employing has potential dangers in that a particularly skilled individual could use multiple cell towers to triangulate someone's location to within or quarter-of-a-mile or closer.

Google says using Cell ID codes could help further improve the speed and performance of message delivery on Android phones.
But recent report gave me a shock because I always thought that turning location off doesn't give my location data to Google. The company also claimed it would stop the collection of the cell tower information by the end of November.

Though Google made a change to the Firebase Cloud Messaging system in January to also request Cell ID codes that it planned to use to further beef it up, it never fully integrated it. While the data collected is encrypted, it is possible for that information to be shared with third-parties or intercepted by a malicious actor. Experts explained that a single cell tower can only offer an approximate location of a smartphone user, but with three towers in range and a method called triangulation, that user's location can be easily spotted. However, it remains unclear why the company would even start this invasive data collection practice.

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Google's privacy policy says: "When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location".

But Google has been collecting the addresses of telephone masts that are "pinged" by phones since the beginning of this year, it has emerged. What's more alarming is that if a user opts to not be tracked, at all, you have no way of never being tracked because your Android device is always collecting location data.

The disadvantage of Google Maps Timeline is that anyone who gets access to a user's Google login information can see a complete record of their movements, potentially going back for years.

Cell tower locations are very important, although not a very precise indicator of where you might be.

  • Douglas Reid