Android mobile gadgets send cell tower location data to Google even if the user has disabled location services for apps in the device settings, according to Quartz. The company said it had collected the information to manage messages and push notifications, but it had never used the information nor stored it.
Google said it had been collecting the tower addresses for 11 months "as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery". Now though Android users do not have the option of disabling this particular aspect of location data collection that is employed by Google.
The second is that while cell tower information will not give the pinpoint accuracy that Global Positioning System does, it can still combine location information with other nearby cell towers and calculate a location within a quarter of a mile within the user of the device.
More controversially, about five years ago, the company took a lot of heat after its Street View vehicles were caught collecting WiFi data from unprotected home networks. It's an age-old debate, and while most web surfers on the world's leading mobile and desktop operating systems can live with the occasional online behavior analysis, cookie collecting and location tracking, you have to draw the line somewhere. This data collection is also worrying because in case of a compromised or hacked smartphone, the location could be accessed by third-parties.
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While this data is usually encrypted, it raises concerns for those who would be at risk from being tracked, with Quartz providing examples of "law-enforcement officials or victims of domestic abuse" who would otherwise feel safe just by turning off the location services.
The Cell ID was never incorporated into Google's network sync system and all the data was "immediately discarded", the company said. Now, the information about a nearby cellular tower will only result in an approximate location, but accurate results can easily be extracted by multiple towers if present closeby. Check out Google's Privacy Checkup page to edit what data you're sharing with the public, your friends or even advertisers. However, the company said the data is "distinctly separate" from Location Services, which sends a device's location to the applications.
As long as there is a mobile data or Wi-Fi connection, devices will send Google their location when they are in range of a new cellular tower.