Google has been tracking the location of Android users — even when those users have taken all precautions to prevent such tracking from occurring.

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This year, Android phones have collected addresses from nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sent that data back to Google. The data collection was witnessed by Quartz, which contacted Google. Google confirmed the practice is taking place.

The addresses of cell towers “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,” a Google spokesperson told Quartz.

Tracking Troubles

Consumers are unable to disable this service, as the cell tower address collection can occur despite users turning off location services. Even users who don’t use apps or a SIM card can be tracked by Google in this manner.

Google says the information was never stored or used, and the company also says this particular practice will cease by the end of November.

The Quartz report notes that, despite Google’s claims, “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.”

Under “Location Information,” Google’s own privacy policy claims the company “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.”

Seeking Transparency

The article points out possible issues with the practice, including the possibility of hackers accessing unique phone ID numbers from compromised Android phones. Another obvious concern is the question of how advertisers might use such location data.

The discovery of this issue is troubling, especially to those Android users who may have taken specific steps to ensure their location data was not disclosed. Our ongoing hope is that companies will strive to be more transparent with all the ways they collect and use data, and that users will have every opportunity to opt out.

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