Google has acknowledged it has been collecting cell tower location data (Cell ID) even when users disabled location services on their Android phones. The term "location services" oftentimes refers to exact Global Positioning System data for app usage, such as Google Maps finding your best commute route, or Uber figuring out exactly where you're standing to let drivers know your pickup point. The report states that Android devices were sharing their location even when there was no SIM card installed and the user disabled location services.
Most phone makers or app developers record user data at some point to fine tune their services for a better user experience. The findings are surprising, given that cell tower data is usually held by carrier networks and only shared with outside companies under extreme circumstances. It's also not very reassuring to know the whole cell-tower location data monitoring thing will end later this month.
The firm admitted it has been using customers' phones to find out where masts are sited even if they have removed the Sim card or switched off location functions. The data provides a way to categorize and label people (sometimes in unflattering terms) such as: financial newsletter subscriber, allergy sufferer, "financially challenged", Twitter user with more than 250 friends, and "working-class moms".
As long as there is a mobile data or Wi-Fi connection, devices will send Google their location when they are in range of a new cellular tower.
"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 statement continued.
Its purported goal was to "further improve the speed and performance of message delivery", i.e. push notifications, but Cell ID code gathering was never actually incorporated into Google's "network sync system".
And as Google and other companies delve deeper into designing and manufacturing their own devices, specifically smartphones, the concept of privacy diminishes and eventually disappears. However, users can stop apps from using their advertising ID to target them with more personalised advertisements by opting out of the ads personalisation in Settings- Google- Ads.
While this data is usually encrypted, it raises concerns for those who would be at risk from being tracked, with Quartz providing examples of "law-enforcement officials or victims of domestic abuse" who would otherwise feel safe just by turning off the location services.
Had Google properly included Cell ID Codes as part of the Firebase core, it would have sent the data to Google's servers after each request.