Google collects Android users’ locations even when location services are disabled

People try out Google's Pixel 2 phones during a launch event in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Covert tracking. (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

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November 21, 2017

Many people realize that smartphones track their locations. But what if you actively turn off location services, haven’t used any apps, and haven’t even inserted a carrier SIM card?

Even if you take all of those precautions, phones running Android software gather data about your location and send it back to Google when they’re connected to the internet, a Quartz investigation has revealed.

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

The cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months, according to a Google spokesperson. They were never used or stored, the spokesperson said, and the company is now taking steps to end the practice after being contacted by Quartz. By the end of November, the company said, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable.

“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.”

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A cell-tower location sent to Google from an Android device.(Obtained by Quartz)

It is not clear how cell-tower addresses, transmitted as a data string that identifies a specific cell tower, could have been used to improve message delivery. But the privacy implications of the covert location-sharing practice are plain. While information about a single cell tower can only offer an approximation of where a mobile device actually is, multiple towers can be used to triangulate its location to within about a quarter-mile radius, or to a more exact pinpoint in urban areas, where cell towers are closer together.

The practice is troubling for people who’d prefer they weren’t tracked, especially for those such as law-enforcement officials or victims of domestic abuse who turn off location services thinking they’re fully concealing their whereabouts. Although the data sent to Google is encrypted, it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking. Each phone has a unique ID number, with which the location data can be associated.

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. Such personal data, ranging from users’ political views to their purchase histories to their locations, are foundational to the business successes of companies like Facebook and Alphabet, built on targeted advertising and personalization and together valued at over $1.2 trillion by investors.

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Cell-tower locations collected and sent to Google from an Android phone with location services turned off and carried in Washington, DC. (Obtained by Quartz)

The location-sharing practice does not appear to be limited to any particular type of Android phone or tablet; Google was apparently collecting cell tower data from all modern Android devices before being contacted by Quartz. A source familiar with the matter said the cell tower addresses were being sent to Google after a change in early 2017 to the Firebase Cloud Messaging service, which is owned by Google and runs on Android phones by default.

Even devices that had been reset to factory default settings and apps, with location services disabled, were observed by Quartz sending nearby cell-tower addresses to Google. Devices with a cellular data or WiFi connection appear to send the data to Google each time they come within range of a new cell tower. When Android devices are connected to a WiFi network, they will send the tower addresses to Google even if they don’t have SIM cards installed.

“It has pretty concerning implications,” said Bill Budington, a software engineer who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital privacy. “You can kind of envision any number of circumstances where that could be extremely sensitive information that puts a person at risk.”

The section of Google’s privacy policy that covers location sharing says the company will collect location information from devices that use its services, but does not indicate whether it will collect data from Android devices when location services are disabled:

When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location. We use various technologies to determine location, including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell towers.

According to the Google spokesperson, the company’s system that controls its push notifications and messages is “distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps.” Android devices never offered consumers a way to opt out of the collection of cell tower data.

“It is really a mystery as to why this is not optional,” said Matthew Hickey, a security expert and researcher at Hacker House, a security firm based in London. “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.”

While Google says it doesn’t use the location data it collects using this service, its does allow advertisers to target consumers using location data, an approach that has obvious commercial value. The company can tell using precise location tracking, for example, whether an individual with an Android phone or running Google apps has set foot in a specific store, and use that to target the advertising a user subsequently sees.

 

WHAT CHROME'S INCOGNITO MODE IS ACTUALLY FOR, EXPLAINED BY A GOOGLE EXEC- CHROME IS A LIE

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@jwmcgauley

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Incognito Mode will not help you watch porn at work...

Although Incognito Mode has earned a reputation for helping people shield prying eyes from seeing whatever it is they don’t want to be caught having looked at, its origins are far from illicit. According to Fisher, Incognito Mode was born in 2008 with the primary intention of making it easier and more convenient for people who share computers to do so without mucking up their devices with another user's cookies -- the temporary or permanent files stored on your computer by websites to help them recognize you and keep track of your preferences.

That said, it was also meant to help people hide behaviors they didn't want loved ones to see. Though, as Fisher describes it, the scenario Google envisioned involves a boyfriend searching for engagement rings who doesn't want his soon-to-be-fiancée -- with whom he shares a computer -- to get any hint that he's about to propose. The Chrome team wanted to provide a tool that would enable people to "pause" their browser from recording its history so people wouldn't have to purge it in its entirety whenever they didn't want to leave a trace -- a move Fisher describes as "destructive" because it prevents your browser from taking advantage of historical data (e.g., cookies) to power future searches, and causes it to slow down.

... in fact, if you're using it that way, your boss can probably still see what you're doing

When you use Incognito Mode, your browsing activity does not get recorded to the physical device you're using. That doesn't mean all of what you do is necessarily invisible to the people you want to keep in the dark. That's because if you browse an unsecure site (one without an "https") people who are on the same network as you could peek at what you're doing, and see the sites you're seeing.

For example, if you log on to your employer's Wi-Fi using Incognito in hopes of getting away with something shady online, a savvy superior could easily watch as you go about your business. As more and more sites opt to more secure "https" domains this is becoming less of an issue, but the fact remains that Incognito Mode will not protect you from snoops in this scenario.

incognito mode
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Incognito Mode was not designed to protect your privacy

If you want to conceal the fact you're about to propose to your partner by doing some covert ring shopping on Incognito Mode, do it! But if you expect IM to protect you against the many, many privacy pitfalls inherent to browsing the modern-day web, be aware that's not its purpose. In fact, Fisher explained that the Chrome team agonized over what to call IM it in the beginning, intentionally steering away from including "privacy" in the name, because it didn't want to oversell its ability.

"When you launch the Incognito tab there’s this disclaimer there where we really try to help make it really clear to people that your activity is certainly still visible to the websites you visit and could be visible to your employer, to your school your, and to your ISP [internet service provide] of course," he says.

What Incognito Mode is useful for

While its developers intended Incognito Mode to make sharing your computer easier, it's since become a handy tool in a number of other situations. For instance, some old-hat flight deal searchers claim they've found cheaper fares while doing repeat flight searches in IM, so as to prevent airlines from keeping tabs on their activity and freezing or jacking the price.

It's also a good way to protect yourself against potentially sketchy or unsecure sites you casually encounter. Fisher suggests this is actually one of its best uses, and encourages people to right click on hyperlinks in Chrome and launch them by selecting "Open Link in Incognito Window." Also, consider shopping on Amazon in IM if you don't want the site's pesky "similar item" suggestions to follow you everywhere you go.

The bottom line is, be vigilant and keep your browser updated

While Fisher didn't give us his take on how best to browse without leaving any trace whatsoever, and acknowledges that Incognito Mode should not be considered a privacy shield, he maintains that the best way to protect yourself and your privacy in the age of rampant online identity theft and hacking is to make sure you're using a modern browser and keeping it updated. The Chrome team is constantly monitoring threats and bugs, and ensures its updates include patches and fixes to address whatever security breaches people are most at-risk of, he said. 

The truth is, the only way to be truly invisible online these days is to use a browser like Tor on the Dark Web. Then again, if you don't know what that is or how to get there, you should probably steer clear -- "Dark" is the word that describes it in more ways than one.