Users of smartphones with the Google Android operating system are being tracked by Google at all times — even when the “location services” option is switched off, according to new investigative report by Quartz Media published online on Tuesday. The Quartz investigation found that Android phones have been keeping track of their users’ locations at least since early 2017.
Google — which is now a subsidiary of the recently created parent company Alphabet — has been gathering location information on owners of phones that use its Android operating system to an extent that goes “far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy,” the Quartz report revealed.
The Android phones sent location information back to the central Google servers every time a user came within range of a cell tower, as long as the phone was connected to a cellular or WiFi network. Even phones without SIM cards installed were observed transmitting user location data back to Google — and users have no way to stop the phones from tracking them and reporting their locations, according to the report. Even shutting down all apps on the phone will not stop the Android OS from sharing a user’s location with Google.
Tablet computers running the Android system also transmit location data back to Google, as long as they are connected to cellular or WiFi networks. But the data sent with “location services” off is not as accurate as information transmitted with the option switched on.
Asked about the covert location data transmission, a spokesperson for Google revealed that Android phones have been sending the data back to Google servers for about 11 months, since the beginning of 2017 — as part of a program to increase the speed of message delivery, such as text messages and news alerts. But Google claimed that the location data was not stored on the company’s servers.
How Google uses the data to speed messages without storing the location data on its servers remained unclear, however.
While using “location services” allows Google to pinpoint a user’s location with incredible accuracy, even identifying the name of a business or restaurant where the user happens to be located at a given time, the data sent with the “location services” option disabled is somewhat more vague. The phone sends only the location of the nearest cell tower to Google.
But by keeping a record of a user’s recent locations, Google or a possible hacker who taps into the data could use a method known as “triangulation” to locate a user within about a quarter-mile radius. In densely populated areas, like cities, where cell towers are located close to one another, the “triangulation” method could be employed to find a user’s location with an even greater degree of precision, according to the Quartz findings.
The Google spokesperson who spoke to Quartz told the site that the location data program would now be terminated before the end of 2017 — at least using the current data transmission method. But the Google spokesperson did not say whether the Android operating system would continue to track user locations using some other method.
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