Google’s Android OS has a number of features related to a user’s location, but news outlet Quartz Media LLC has found that the OS has been collecting rough location data on all users since about January of this year, and sending it back to the company even when a user’s location settings and services are all turned off. Quartz reached out to Google for confirmation, and the company confirmed that this was happening, and offered an explanation. According to Google, the only location information collected and sent back to Google was rough data drawn from cell towers, and it was to be used for a project involving optimization of delivery channels for various Android services based on a user’s location. That initiative never took off, and the data has been deleted upon reaching Google’s doorstep since collection began. The company said that it will take steps to stop the data collection, and it should be stopped on all Android devices by the end of November.
While the Google initiative in question is fairly innocuous on paper, there are more than a few disturbing facts about the data collection itself. For starters, when the proposed location-based service was scrapped, Google could have turned the collection off then and there. It’s possible that somebody was told to, but it never happened. There is also the fact that the collection has been happening without users’ knowledge, a worrying privacy violation in any light. Google did not reveal how well secured the connections that ferried the data were, so it is to be assumed that anybody who wanted to and knew how to could have stolen the location data and used it as is to determine, cell towers in the area permitting, a user’s rough whereabouts.
Google allows users to choose when they set up a new Android device whether to allow location services and collection, and a user can change these settings at any time. These settings, however, apparently had nothing to do with the case at hand. Even users on Wi-Fi only devices were tracked when using the internet in any capacity, and users on cell phones could be tracked through cell tower triangulation, even when their phones had no SIM cards in them and weren’t connected to any networks.