Android Smartphones Stealthingly Sharing User Location Data with Google

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According to Quartz, the tracking takes place even if you turn off location data, remove your SIM card, and haven't even installed any apps on a "factory fresh" device. The company claims it did not put this information into the sync system though, which means it was allegedly discarded immediately.

Even if you've had location services turned off on your Android phone, Google knows where you've been.

It's unclear if Google would have moved towards discontinuing this unhanded location data collection if Quartz had not found it out and contacted them.

Quartz first discovered the suspect "location" collection on several Android devices and Google reportedly confirmed to the website it was only doing so to "further improve the speed and performance of message delivery".

The publication also added that the search giant has said it is now taking steps to end this practice. That's pretty vague, and the article mentions that Google probably also uses the info for advertisers to target you.

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Back in January of this year, Google started collecting user location data another way-bypassing its permission structure that allowed users the ability to opt out of having their location tracked.

But by using data from multiple towers, a location can be triangulated within a radius of around 0.5 miles (0.8 km). Even if there is no SIM card on a phone, it still uses WiFi to send the tower address. The company says the data was never stored on its servers.

The revelation comes as Google and other internet companies are under fire from lawmakers and regulators, including for the extent to which they vacuum up data about users. Google's terms of service, at the time of publish, still vaguely state, "When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location" using "various technologies... including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell tower".

The disadvantage of Google Maps Timeline is that anyone who gets access to a user's Google login information can see a complete record of their movements, potentially going back for years. But knowing the address of at least three nearby cell towers could result in the exact location of that device via a method known as triangulation. In both cases, it's reasonable to assume users weren't expecting Google to be collecting this data. This could be common practice in urban areas where cell towers are denser.