Google collects the location of Android users, even if they have turned off location services. The location is determined on the basis of cell towers and opt-out is not possible. Google says it will stop collecting this data.
Since early 2017, Android smartphones store the locations of nearby cell towers and this data is sent to Google as soon as the phone has an internet connection. This collection of location data also occurs when users disable Google Location Services and occurs without users’ knowledge.
Quartz discovered the practices and Google confirmed to the website that cell tower locations were collected. According to a Google spokesperson, the cell tower locations are part of information that Google uses to manage push notifications. The spokesperson said Google started collecting so-called Cell ID codes in January as an “additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery.” However, the data would never have actually been used, nor would it have been stored.
Google says to Quartz that it will stop collecting the cell tower locations. As of late November, Android smartphones would no longer send cell tower locations to Google if location services are turned off.
The location data of a cell tower is sent to Google as an encrypted data string. There is no way for users to block this. In its privacy terms, Google does mention that cell tower locations are used to determine location, but in it the company links to an explanation page stating that this only happens if location services are enabled.
It is not possible to determine a very accurate location on the basis of one transmission tower, but by combining data from several transmission towers with triangulation, a fairly accurate location can be found. This is certainly the case in urban areas where there are many cell towers.
According to Quartz, the collection of location data is not limited to a particular type of Android smartphone or tablet. The Android version doesn’t seem to matter either. Google would have received the locations of all cell towers from all modern Android devices before Quartz got in touch. According to a source of the website who conducted the research, Google started the practice after making a change to its Firebase Cloud Messaging service early this year. It is standard on Android devices and is owned by Google.