Research by Quartz has found that Android devices continue to send location data to Google regardless of whether a user has disabled the location services for apps and has not even inserted a SIM card.
In addition, Quartz noted that location data was being sent even if devices had been reset to their factory settings.
Once the Android device was connected to mobile cellular or WiFI, it was sending location data to Google when in cell tower range. As a result, Google now has access to mobile users’ locations and can track their movements.
Quartz did enquire about the findings and Google confirmed the practices. However, the company added that information wasn’t being stored. Following Quartz’s investigation, Google said it would stop the practice with effect from the end of November.
“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,” a Google spokesperson said. “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.”
Regardless of Google’s reasoning, the news are troubling for mobile phone users who specifically opted out of all location tracking on Android devices. Despite encryption of the collected data, Google could potentially send it on to a third party.
The privacy issue with location data is that it is highly sensitive and can reveal a lot about a phone owner’s lifestyle.
Bill Budington, a software engineer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained:
“It has pretty concerning implications. You can kind of envision any number of circumstances where that could be extremely sensitive information that puts a person at risk.”
The decision by Google to collect user location data without their consent has baffled many in the industry. Even if the company decides to use the data to improve device performance, it should ask users to opt in.
After all, Google does provide location data collection to advertisers, which means that such data has commercial value. Location tracking is popular among mobile marketers wishing to retarget products based on a user entering a store or location.