It turns out that your Android Smartphone Tracks Your Location All The Time whether you have location services (GPS) turned on or not.
Months ago I had an experience that was alarming. By default I have location services turned off on my Android smartphone. I put it on only when it is needed. One evening before I set off for home from the office, I turned it on and opened up Google Maps to check what traffic along a certain route was like. Lo and behold, Google Maps drew me a route home – an alternative route I often took home to avoid traffic along the major routes that led home. And that night, there was no traffic along my more direct routes.
I had never had Location Services on anytime I used that route yet Google Maps was aware of a route that I regularly took. Somehow, Google was able to track my location as I moved about though I had Location Services disabled.
Big Brother Google
Yesterday, Quartz confirmed that indeed Google collects Android users’ locations even when location services are disabled in a finding of theirs. The Quartz report states:
Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.
The Quartz team contacted Google, who confirmed that this was indeed happening. Google’s response on the matter:
“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 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.”
So much for doing no evil. The Quartz report says “Google is now taking steps to end the practice after being contacted by Quartz”.
Quartz’s findings also reveal that your Android smartphone tracks your location even when there is no SIM card in it, as long as it is connected to a Wifi hotspot. It uses the hotspot location for this.
How Your Android Smartphone Tracks Your Movement
Each time you move into range of a cell tower, your smartphone sends that info to Google. Using information from multiple cell sites means that your location can be narrowed down to really accurate levels without GPS being active. This is especially more accurate in areas with a dense concentration of cell towers.
Tech companies keep invading the privacy of users in any way that they can. Google did not disclose that they were doing this sort of tracking, and did not provide a way to disable it. Sneaky behaviour.