Google has been collecting user location data on Android smartphones even when location services were turned off, as per a new report. Quartz claims the location tracking still occurred on Android smartphones even if a user took precautionary measures like disabling location, not using any app, or not inserting a SIM card on the device.
The investigation by Quartz claims that an Android device sends these details when the device is connected to the Internet. The report says that the user location data tracking has been in practice since start of this year, and the company essentially collects addresses of nearby cellular towers, even when location services are turned off on the device. Quartz adds that Google confirmed the practice.
A Google spokesperson is quoted to have told Quartz that the company has been collecting cell tower addresses to improve delivery of push notifications and messages on Android devices for roughly 11 months. The spokesperson, however, added that the user location data was never stored. The Google spokesperson is also quoted to that it will stop collecting user location data in the form of cell-tower location by the end of November. "Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable," the company has said. The new report raises a lot of questions on user privacy where people might not like to be tracked but do not have the option to actually turn it off.
In an email, Google spokesperson said, "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." The report adds that even if the data sent to Google was encrypted, it could have been compromised.
At this moment, it isn't clear the exact use case of the location tracking but it could be used for targeted advertising.