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Google stops secretly tracking cellular location info

  • Quartz reported that software on Android phones gathers location data and sends it back to Google, even if you've actively turned off location settings on your phone, haven't used any apps, or even if you haven't inserted a SIM card from your carrier.
  • Google said it chose to end the practice right after the Quartz report was brought to its attention.
  • Google said that the Cell ID codes were never stored in its network sync system, "so that data was immediately discarded."
A representative from Panasonic holds the Panasonic Eluga U smartphone, using the latest Android Kitkat operating system, during its launch in New Delhi, India.
Sanjeev Verma | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
A representative from Panasonic holds the Panasonic Eluga U smartphone, using the latest Android Kitkat operating system, during its launch in New Delhi, India.

Google is ending a practice in which certain Android cellphone location information was captured, following an online investigation that raised questions about how the information might impact your privacy.

The report, posted in Quartz, states that software on Android phones gathers location data and sends it back to Google, even if you've actively turned off location settings on your phone, haven't used any apps, or even if you haven't inserted a SIM card from your carrier. The phone would have to be connected to the Internet.

Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers since the beginning of the year, Quartz said, giving Google access to location information that goes "far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy."

Google said it chose to end the practice right after the Quartz report was brought to its attention.

In a rather technical statement emailed to USA TODAY, Google offered an explanation: "To ensure messages and notifications are received quickly, modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires the use of Mobile Country Codes (MCC) and Mobile Network Codes (MNC). In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery."

Android phones regularly ping Google's servers using a system known as Firebase Cloud Messaging.

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The Cell ID codes, generally a unique number that identifies a cell tower, is one variable, among many, that can be used to determine a device's location.

Google said that the Cell ID codes were never stored in its network sync system, "so that data was immediately discarded."

Nevertheless, Google states that it is no longer requesting such Cell ID codes. Google is still using the other codes, MCC and MNC, because they "provide necessary network information for message and notification delivery." Google added that these codes are distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device's location to apps."

Google does reach out to advertisers who want to target customers based on their geographic whereabouts, through the company's online AdWorks advertising program. Google can determine location through data collected via GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or in some instances a cell tower.