Google has been busted for tracking Android device owners’ whereabouts, even when the location services have been disabled.
A Quartz investigation found the firm had been using nearby cell towers to approximate users’ locations without their knowledge from the beginning of 2017.
From January, the company was requesting Cell ID data to track individual devices, even if they didn’t have an active SIM in their phone or any apps installed.
Google has admitted the behavior, claiming it tracked the devices in order to improve the efficiency of its messaging platform.
It also says the data was immediately discarded and that the identifying number for each phone is no longer being collected.
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In a statement, a Google spokesperson says: “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.
“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.”
Putting users at risk
Google did not explain how such a practice could improve message delivery. However, the firm did say its messaging service is “distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps.”
While the company gives users a chance to opt out of tracking via Location Services, it does not give user’s the same privilege this alternative method of collection.
“It is really a mystery as to why this is not optional,” said Matthew Hickey of London-based security form Hacker House. “It seems quite intrusive for Google to be collecting such information that is only relevant to carrier networks when there are no SIM card or enabled services.”
Privacy advocates also slammed the practice, saying Google could be putting users at risk.
“It has pretty concerning implications,” said Bill Budington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“You can kind of envision any number of circumstances where that could be extremely sensitive information that puts a person at risk.”
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