Starting from early 2017, Quartz revealed that Android phones have been gathering users' location using nearby cellular towers and sending this data back to Google, even when the devices' location services have been switched off.
According to the publication, Android devices have been collecting location data pretty much all the time, and subsequently relayed all stored information back to Google once connected to the internet. Quarts claims that all modern Android phones are affected.
The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to users' locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.
Cell tower addresses were collected by the same system that Google uses to manage push notifications and messages, said a spokesperson for Google. While this has been going on for 11 months, the spokesperson insisted none of the data has been stored or used.
Following the coverage, Google has vowed to take measures to prevent this from happening in the future.
“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. “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.”
While location data from a single cell tower can only reveal an approximation of where a device is, pulling data from multiple towers could be used to triangulate the device's location to within a quarter-mile radius.
Earlier in October, Reddit users have warned Android users that Google has an Activity Recognition API that allows third-party apps to track physical activity – even when the device is offline.
Google has indeed mentioned that it collects location data, but does not state whether this is the case when location services have been disabled.
This marks the second time in recent months the search giant has been caught collecting user data under questionable circumstances.