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Google has been secretly collecting Android users' cell tower locations, risking a hit to its reputation

Google makes no secret of the amount of user data it collects when someone signs up for its services. More so when he or she uses an Android phone. Given that Google is predominantly an advertising company, the more data accrued, the more targeted it can help its advertising partners be.

In the case of Android, Google makes the argument that by allowing it to collect location data, it can enhance services from Google Maps to Assistant, creating a web of context. It's why using an Android phone feels so magical, because Google is doing so many things behind the scenes with all the data being shared.

But according to Quartz, the company has gone a bit too far this time.

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers—even when location services are disabled—and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals' locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

The upside is this: not only has Google collected the location data for nearby cellular towers of any Android device that connects to its notification service powered by Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM), a cross-platform and more advanced version of Google Cloud Messaging that many apps use to send notifications, but it's done so even when the user has no SIM card in his or her phone.

Companies like Google have no business collecting cell tower location data. Leave that to the cellular providers.

Google claims that the feature was enabled to "further improve the speed and performance of message delivery," but the data was never incorporated into any notification enhancements. A Google spokesperson said, "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."

Still, Quartz found this activity recently, on a current-generation Android phone; Google now says it will release an update later in the month to disable the practice altogether, but you have to wonder how long it would have taken to do so were it not caught.

Cell ID, or cell tower location data, is not something manufacturers or platform owners typically collect. Instead, the data is stored by the provider, such as T-Mobile or Verizon, and is rarely shared with outside vendors. Occasionally, the information is subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation — remember the first season of Serial? — but it is understood that a person's cell tower data because it is so valuable, is never to be shared with third-party advertisers.

Even though Google has assured us that the data was never stored, nor used for anything, this revelation could be a hit to Google's already-fragile reputation when it comes to user privacy. The company has gone a long way to improve communication with its users over the past few years, making it fairly easy to opt-out of or remove location data or tune one's cross-account privacy with a simple check-up.

Google has found itself in a position of having to defend a practice that is largely indefensible: it should never have been collection Cell ID data in the first place; it should never have done so without a SIM card present; and it should never have kept it a secret.

While this storm is likely to pass quickly, it's sure to leave a sour taste in the mouths of Android users already worried about giving Google too much of their selves, willingly or otherwise.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

76 Comments
  • This is why I say, there is no privacy. People might as well accept it. All these companies are doing more than they say. It's just whether or not they're busted that makes people think some are more trustworthy than others.
  • This. Exactly...
  • No. Do not accept it. When companies do **** like this, pitch a huge fit about it. Just accepting it gives every company tacit permission to keep doing more, and worse. And they will, if people don't kick and scream every time they overstep their bounds. No doubt they'll keep trying no matter what, but just lying back and saying, "Well, no use complaining" will only make things worse, and more quickly.
  • There is no use complaining though. What are you gonna do, stop using Google? Every single company does this. ALL of them. They're all siphoning all of our data. You have no recourse other than living under a rock.
  • I have been contemplating stop using smartphones all together. Whether I decide to try it is another story.
  • Just use a smoke signal!
  • The worst **** in the human record has happened when people stopped standing up for social good. Sure corporations will do whatever they want until they get caught, but just think what they would do if they were caught and nobody cared?
  • I guess one could use an iPhone and not use a company like google that thinks it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.
  • #battlefrontII
  • Absolutely.
    Unfortunately, by reading the comments here, it looks as if the battle is lost. People have been broken and accept these crimes. It's extremely disturbing, un-American and detrimental to humanity.
  • I agree. I don't like it but if I'm honest I'm going to do nothing about it.
    Only good thing is I always keep my location switch on so my cell data is no use to them...
  • In the Internet era, nothing is private anymore. The second we use a smartphone, our privacy goes out the window; doesn't matter if you use an iPhone or Android device.
  • Everyone is doing it so that makes it ok? reallly? It's disgusting. Google annd facebook were both funded partially by seed money from front companies owned by US intel agencies. It is not the way it should be, probably was illegal. and for the folks that say "well, I'm not doing anything illegal, why do I care?...Any government that doesn't like your political view, sexual orientation, religion, whatever they don't t like can know exactly where you are, and what you think thanks to google and facebook. Any dictator or fascist governent in the past would have given anything to get this capability, and you can bet the current crop are overjoyed.
  • So this is how ICE is doing so much with the Immigration round up.
    SAD!
  • I actually agree with this use. And the term is "illegal immigration"
  • There is privacy. It just costs more. Sony phone with Jolla OS, or a phone with Replicant OS and only FDroid. Then only cell companies get the data. DDG or StartPage or alike for searching, and only PGP email if you want GMail, or use Protonmail or Tutanota or whatever.
  • Such a naive way of thinking...
  • This is just a nihilistic attitude that allows companies to go on with whatever they want. It might be hard to completely render back from Google (you can root your phone) but from High Level to Low Level you can still try to secure your privacy. We can go from common Messengers (Facebook/WhatsApp) to secure alternatives (like Threema) and from public networks to IP-hiding VPN. Also, if enough public pressure is created from normal people on Google, they even might induce change. We don't know for sure but just be a sheep and accept surely will not help. We have to give big companies what they deserve.
  • This is poor on Google's part and will further feed the criticism from Apple supporters.
  • I think we can agree that Apple is already doing that; they haven't been busted yet. Microsoft & Amazon are doing the same thing.
  • Secretly? I thought we all knew Google was constantly watching us...
  • wow wtf google, what are you doing?
  • Why don't you ask Eric surely he would know.
    eschmidt@google.com
  • I'll never understand why Google hired the guy who ran Novell into the ground.
  • Really, how many people would ever notice this or even care if there wasn't an article or two or three detailing this telling us to be angry at Google. My point isn't that it's not wrong, my point is that most people don't care. They know Google, Apple, insert company name here, etc collect user data to improve user experience, fix bugs, sell you ads etc etc etc. I personally know that for Google or any other company to give me services for free I have to give something in return. In this case my data. I don't read every single user agreement. In fact I read none of them. I'm in the majority. This will blow over with barely a wisper because I like most people just don't care. Nothing else to see here, let's move on. If everyone was so worried about their data or information then Facebook wouldn't have as many members as they do, people wouldn't store information in the cloud much less pictures in Instagram and we wouldn't use any type of loyalty cards for our gas or groceries. I can give countless examples. Worried about your privacy... Disconnect and move to the wild.
  • Exactly this... People conflate aggregated behavioral data with real personal information such as your SIN number, credit card information, and other things that could be used to steal your identity. There are real breaches of of lost personal data that get drowned in the sea of "google knows which cell tower I connected to".
  • Exactamente, la mejor respuesta.
  • It's the level of invasion that's the issue.
  • Don't care. I'm already opting into all of this for my services benefit as I am fully aware that the network provider is doing the same thing anyway.
  • Yep. I long accepted this in exchange of useful services from different companies. I mean wth am I gonna do when companies and schools requires you to be connected on the internet and own laptops/desktops and a smartphone that use those services?
  • Net neutrality made headlines in America today... People are focused on speeds of access.... BUT.... The biggest loss (soon) of net neutrality in America is consumer privacy safeguards. Internet service providers will now collect, use, and disclose subscriber internet act without consent. In other words, ISP's want to get into targeted advertising, like Google or Facebook. The difference is Google and Facebook allow users to opt out. ISP's will now collect and personally identify everything consumers do online & sell the data. The Trump administration will have shifted unprecedented power from American consumers to a handful of giant telecom companies. In Canada, net neutrality is not under attack, & ISP's are legally forbidden from retention of consumer data for targeted advertising without opt in customer consent. Your personal information is worth money. Nothing from your ISP is free.
  • Net neutrality was the government control of the pipe. It's not needed. Why would support govt control like that. Move to Cuba. I'm Cuban and can tell you first hand, it sucks @$$ They collect your data. You agree to it when you sign up for a plan.
  • If you buy a car, is the manufacturer entitled to record everyhere you go, and then sell your personal driving logs to third parties? No, of course not. Why would the American gov't authorize ISP's to collect all your online information and sell it? By eliminating net neutrality, the federal government has ok'd ISP's to basically spy, save, and then sell your Internet use for targeted advertising. Thus, your take on civil privacy is absolutely wrong. The government has enshrined the collection of your online digital fingerprints for corporate profit, and you have no right to opt out of collection. You cannot opt out of ISP data collection in America once the Trump administration ruling to end net neutrality ends. Now... As to your pipeline argument.... Ending net neutrality discourages innovation through new business start up's. Net neutrality is embraced by the entire western world, although Australia has no legal protection for neutrality. https://www.thisisnetneutrality.org/ It is not surprising
  • How is a car the same thing? A car isn't a utility.
  • Please.....Obama gave the keys to the kingdom away to the UN just before he burned his bridges.
  • That was just domain names and IP addresses. This is content delivery.
  • F*&k. I went in to upgrade to the iPhone 8+ and ended up canceling the process half-way through to give myself a few more days to mull over getting the Pixel 2 XL, which I really wanted. But this has reminded me why I'm on iOS at the moment. Gonna get that iPhone, tomorrow.
  • And you believe Apple is not collecting any of your data??
  • Not tower by tower
  • It's NOT OK Google.
  • Anyone shocked by the behavior of google, an ADVERTISING company, needs to pull their head out and realize that google is just an unethical advertising company consuming your data.
  • Meh... I assumed they already collected it; I mean, it's Google. Everyone knows they're collecting everything they can; whatevs. They'll never use any of it maliciously; it would destroy the company. They couldn't even sale data considered overly private; people would still know the source, and it would still destroy the company. So again, whatevs
  • Meh, I just assume everyone is taking my information secretly, since they probably are... Haha
  • Oh this was a secret??? I thought we all knew that Google was working with the globalists in order to control us. Welcome too reality people.
  • I agree. Most people let that stupid little cell phone control their lives. They look so darn stupid waiting in line anywhere with their eyes glued to the little devices. I love my device, but when I’m in public, it’s almost never out of my pocket. They’re so into their phone and not reality, so stories like this freak the little drones out. You can welcome them all to reality if ya want, but they’re gonna go back into their devices shortly after.
  • What happened to "Don't be evil" or "Do the right thing?" This is neither. Shame on you google.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/05/alphabet-n...
  • Go back to a house phone and or a star tac ....less chance of being followed..
  • Lol, no. All cell phones use towers. WikiLeaks through their Vault 7 release gives an idea of the CIA targeting capabilities on phones. Anyways, I do agree with other comments which basically say they they got nothing to hide.... Good thing... And there is nowhere to hide online.
  • Why stop there? A couple of tin cans and a length of string ftw.
  • You just described the Pixel 3. And AC will still call it the best phone of 2018.
  • Wow. I cant believe this is a supprise to anyone as we crest 2018. If you want privacy you need to unplug from the internet of things. The synthetic organism that is the A.I. knows everything about you. If you have made it this far and don't know that, hold on to your butts. Rant over...... Google is your friend.
  • It amuses me that a generation that puts its whole life online through Facebook etc can get so indignant about something as trivial as this. If you want complete privacy stay offline.
  • I must be one of the few who couldn't care less. Owning a Google product or signing up for Facebook etc you should know you're pretty much giving away your privacy there and then. People want to give these companies nothing from their lives but expect the likes of Google Now or Bixby, Cortana and Siri to magically bring up personal results to aid them when they need it. My phone constantly tells me where my car is parked, or if there's traffic ahead or if a family member is nearby and all without me asking it and I'm fine with that.
    I know when I open a web page I get ads about stuff I've been looking at online or at shops I've visited and I'm fine with that too. That's just part of the package.
  • It's the level of invasion and sneakiness that's the issue
  • I bought my Android phones knowing full well that my info is tracked by google, cell provider, and even expect law enforcement to track me. It’s sad I have to think this way, but when you have a device like this, expect it all. That goes for you iPhone users. I’ve got nothing to hide. Your privacy and freedoms left a while ago. It’s dissapointing that we pay so much for a phone that is just a fraction of the profits for all these companies. A little better if you’re an iPhone user. When I want my privacy, I leave the phone in a bag shut off for a week and head out of town. That simple. The problem started with trusting the companies themselves and even law enforcement. Ever heard of a sting ray? Maybe you’ve driven by one before.
  • Nothing to hide? Can you post your SSN for us here? You don't seem to give a da*m about the bill of Rights
  • I agree with you, I bought my first Android phone knowing what to expect but that was long ago when Google did seem to honour their motto Don't Be Evil
  • When I get a new phone I agree to everything when setting it up so I brush stories like this aside. I understand why people are upset though especially those he didn't agree to be tracked.
  • I went to a Netapp storage conference a few months ago and the lady spoke on this. We (consumers) don't realize how valuable our data actually is and it is a shame. I don't opt into everything when I setup my android device I came from a wp and usually only gave up permissions I wanted to. On some of my apps they won't even work without my access to my contacts or phone. But you have to pay to play..
  • That timeline feature in Google maps is pretty creepy now
  • Google says the data was not stored. If it wasn't stored how did someone discover it? Would using a VPN on your cell phone help conceal some of the info?
  • No. They recorded cell ID, which is wholly independent of internet traffic.
  • It's all just for the NSA
  • It is no surprise to me honestly.. I'm a delivery driver and also during the weekend sometimes I travel with my gf. I rarely ever use the GPS and sometimes I'll get a notification from google and it is the map with an approximative yet precise trace of all the roads I've taken during the travel. It creeps me out every times
  • That's the Google maps timeline. You can switch that off. It has nothing to do with them collecting cell tower locations. Although I guess it could be used for that ultimately.
  • Old and busted: "Don't be evil." New hotness: "Be evil."
  • What's worrying is that they knew they were doing wrong but kept it going as long as possible which is highly unethical. If someone opts out of tracking or location services, that means they are expressly forbidding Google to collect that data. It is a serious breach of trust and Google should issue an apology to each and every user and provide a log of everything that they illegally collected from each individual. I smell class action suits and not just in America.
  • Is the Pixel 2 the best phone to secretly collect Android users' cell tower locations that you can buy?
  • Waiting for that article.
  • It's too bad people freak out about this though which probably scared Google into not using this data. I use Llama for automating all sorts of things and using Cell tower locations is the most energy efficient way of finding your approximate location all the time. I don't have to have my GPS on constantly and yet it still sort of knows where I am.
  • I bought a signal/RFID blocking sleeve for smartphones a couple years ago and haven't used it until today. Today, I refuse to be a slave to what has become a corporate/govt. tracking and listening device. I'll use the phone when I want to, on my terms. No, it won't be as convenient and I will miss some texts and calls, but frankly I was getting tired of being at everyone's mercy 24/7 anyway and I can check in when I choose to do so. We can choose.
  • And I had just started to like Google a bit... After a lifetime with iPhone and winphone...
  • I loath every single A hole that's posted an "oh well whatever".
    Get this through your knuckle dragging lethargic heads, while you're happy to suck google's tiny d.i.c.k. I'm not.
    Alphabet/Google/YouTube needs to be taken to task. Now.
    I'm not a commodity. My life, online or offline is copyright to me. If turds like Google want to purchase my data, they can, as soon as they offer me a deal that I agree with.
  • Daniel, your advice regarding removing location data is unfortunately not the solution.
    I always had location data history off, phone location off and still started to get pumped with ads for places I've been to...stores, restaurants. Started a month or so ago. So Google falsely claims they stop tracking you when you opt out.
    Everyone knows they have their nose up your butt so far that it touches the esophagus, but at least they should stop lying about it.
  • Golly, some of you sound so . . . Indignant. What did you expect was gonna happen when The Internet came along?
    If it really bugs you, might I suggest ditching your cell-phone. Oh, and your home internet account. And don't get one of the newer cars with a navigation system. You might also want to avoid driving around in town; those pesky traffic light cameras don'chaknow. And use cash exclusively. Don't go to the doctor's office. . .
    Alas, the list of potential data mines goes on and on, so if you don't want to deal with it, it's easy; just don't generate data.
    PS; why are you risking your privacy here on a public forum?
  • The advertising business needs to be regulated so that our information is not accessible in the first place. They can go back to serving ads like they did for newspapers. Any location based ads, of a general geographic area, can be done through ISP's. No more targeted ads to individuals, period. And the only way to fight this, is to block as much as you can, by enough people, until they get the message. But, realistically, it's like chopping up worms, they just grow new heads, or tails? And the snake lives to fight again.