In a move that would have George Orwell saying, "Ooh, that's a bit much," it turns out that Google has been tracking Android phone locations for the better part of a year - even if the owner has disabled location services and isn't using a carrier SIM card.
An investigation by Quartz has shown that Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cell towers and sending them back to Google since January, with no way to stop it short of permanently enabling Flight Mode.
The addresses were included in information sent to the system that Google uses to manage push notifications and messages, the firm told Quartz when it raised the issue. A spokesperson for the search giant claims that the information was never used or stored, and it will end the practice this month:
"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. 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."
Quite how knowing cell tower addresses would have improved messaging delivery is unclear, but the privacy implications are transparent. Using information from multiple towers, a user's location could be triangulated to within about quarter of a mile, or closer in urban areas. Even if Google never used that data, it still exists and could have been hijacked by spyware or similar.
This is another example of Google gobbling up personal information and then absolving itself of blame. In October it released a software update to disable the touch top function of the Home Mini, after press coverage showed that the device was listening to all nearby conversations - pointing to a hardware malfunction as the root cause. In this case, the blame apparently falls on engineering experimentation.
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