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Android devices still track you when location services are turned off

26 November 2017

According to Quartz, phones running on Google's Android OS have been collecting addresses of nearby cellular towers - even when location-tracking services are turned off - and sending that data back to Google.

If Cell IDs were collected by Google without user consent, the company might have violated the Location Data Protection Act of South Korea, whether that data was stored on US servers of Google or not, says an official with the privacy infringement division of the KCC. The addresses were in the information that included Cell ID codes that was sent for close to one year to Google. In South Korea, smartphones using Google's Android operating system, including Samsung and LG devices, account for more than 80% of the market, according to research firm IDC.

Google says that the data had been collected to improve its message and notifications delivery, and had not been stored on servers at Google.

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Google never incorporated the data into its system, "so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated [the network system] to no longer request Cell ID", the spokesman added.

Data the company pass on cell towers, which are able to fairly accurately calculate the location of users.

This means that even people who actively turn off their Global Positioning System tracking service - thinking their locations will no longer be shared - were being tracked by Google nonetheless. Devices with a cellular data or WiFi connection appear to send the data to Google each time they come within range of a new cell tower.

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One privacy advocate described the finding as a "betrayal" of users.

When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location. Android devices never offered consumers a way to opt out of the collection of cell tower data.

"It seems quite intrusive for Google to be collecting such information that is only relevant to carrier networks when there are no SIM card or enabled services", Matthew Hickey, a security expert and researcher, told media in London. The more pings, the greater the battery drain, so the data collected about the country and mobile networks is used to work out the the minimum number of pings required to stay connected without draining the battery - so called heartbeat analysis.

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Android devices still track you when location services are turned off