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Google caught receiving location data from Android phones

An update to remove the location-tracking software is coming.


Phillip Tracy


Posted on Nov 21, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 10:26 am CDT

Google admits Android phones have been sending it location data for the past year—but Android users shouldn’t go out and buy a new iPhone just yet.

According to Google, the data wasn’t stored and was deleted as soon as it was received, but the admission still raises questions of privacy and security.

Quartz first discovered in January that Android phones were sending Google the rough location information of nearby cell towers. Most concerning is that the info was sent from smartphones that have location services turned off.

When confronted by Quartz, Google admitted the alarming practice. It claimed to have started tracking cell towers for a now-abandoned feature that was designed to enhance data speeds.

All models of Android phones and tablets sent the data to Google’s push notifications and messaging management system when connected to the internet. Even if they didn’t have a SIM card and weren’t connected, these devices would transmit the data the next time they were in the range of Wi-Fi. A factory reset would reportedly not prevent the location tracking.

“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 told Quartz. “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.”

If Google had collected the data, it could have used the location of multiple cell towers to track a phone’s location to within a quarter mile radius. Regardless, the sketchy behavior raises serious security concerns for people who don’t want their location to be tracked.

An update to remove the location-tracking feature will be released by the end of this month. Google didn’t say whether it planned to stop receiving the data before its behavior was made public.

Fortunately, there is no evidence to suggest Google is spying on your device or actively storing information on your whereabouts. If you’re really worried about Google tracking your phone, considering using a Nokia brick for the next week or so.


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*First Published: Nov 21, 2017, 4:24 pm CST