Android users–even those who turned off location tracking services, or even removed their SIM card–have had their location data collected by Google, according to a report from Quartz. For most of 2017, Google collected the addresses of nearby cell towers as part of the data it routinely gathered from its users once their phones were connected to the internet.
Google confirmed this to Quartz, saying that this data was never used or stored. Additionally, the spokesperson said that it is “now taking steps to end the practice.” In an attempt to explain the practice, they said:
“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.”
This is a pretty frightening thing to do. While the address of one cell tower may not seem like much, users’ locations can be determined by triangulating the data. The “feature” is especially worrisome when it’s implemented without notifying users or without giving them the ability to turn it off. The phenomenon isn’t new: In the past year, AccuWeather was accused of collecting location data from its app without telling users, and Uber has been criticized for gathering location data even when the app wasn’t in use.
As DJ Pangburn reported in September, even data researchers are alarmed by what companies like Google and Facebook can do with anonymous location data, especially when these companies can connect it to a plethora of other data, like your credit card spending. Marketers controlling that data is one thing; what happens when hackers get to it?
You can read the full Quartz piece here.