Dear Android Users: Google Is Tracking You Even If You Disable Location Services

Slowly but surely, Americans have been conditioned to give up any expectations of privacy in the name of public safety and/or for simple technological conveniences.  However, there remains, even today, a tiny sliver of the population that would prefer to not have their every movement tracked no matter how antiquated that makes them look. Be that as it may, per a recent discovery from Quartz, those old-school folks better hope they haven't been using an Android device for the past 11 months.

Many people realize that smartphones track their locations. But what if you actively turn off location services, haven’t used any apps, and haven’t even inserted a carrier SIM card?


Even if you take all of those precautions, phones running Android software gather data about your location and send it back to Google when they’re connected to the internet, a Quartz investigation has revealed.


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.


Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

Of course, the company that has been collecting your location data for nearly a year now without your knowledge, would like for you to know that you shouldn't worry too much about your privacy because they can assure you the data was never "used or stored" and was only collected to help "improve the speed and performance of message delivery"....

The cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months, according to a Google spokesperson. They were never used or stored, the spokesperson said, and the company is now taking steps to end the practice after being contacted by Quartz. By the end of November, the company said, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable.


“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,” the Google spokesperson said in an email. “However, 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.”

Google know, because wireless carriers haven't quite figured out yet how to efficiently route data streams through network nodes just yet...

It is not clear how cell-tower addresses, transmitted as a data string that identifies a specific cell tower, could have been used to improve message delivery. But the privacy implications of the covert location-sharing practice are plain. While information about a single cell tower can only offer an approximation of where a mobile device actually is, multiple towers can be used to triangulate its location to within about a quarter-mile radius, or to a more exact pinpoint in urban areas, where cell towers are closer together.


The practice is troubling for people who’d prefer they weren’t tracked, especially for those such as law-enforcement officials or victims of domestic abuse who turn off location services thinking they’re fully concealing their whereabouts. Although the data sent to Google is encrypted, it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking. Each phone has a unique ID number, with which the location data can be associated.


“It has pretty concerning implications,” said Bill Budington, a software engineer who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital privacy. “You can kind of envision any number of circumstances where that could be extremely sensitive information that puts a person at risk.”


"It is really a mystery as to why this is not optional,” said Matthew Hickey, a security expert and researcher at Hacker House, a security firm based in London. “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.”

Of course, if their excuse for this gross invasion of privacy is even remotely true, then we look forward Google's follow-up report to Android users detailing precisely how much faster their text messages are now than before...we won't hold our breath.


GUS100CORRINA css1971 Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:34 Permalink

I want to suggest that GOODLE is not alone, APPLE and MICROSOFT probably doing it as well.In fact, with all of the BACK DOORS into these intelligent devices, the IC is tracking you as well.Remember, everyone in the world has an IP address ( on your device if you are connected to a network. Once you have an IP ADDRESS, you are able to be tracked.

In reply to by css1971

johngaltfla GUS100CORRINA Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:47 Permalink

All major software/phone companies do it.Why do you think Microsoft pushed Windows 10 so hard?With Windows 7 you can still encrypt your hard drive (not adviseable unless you know what you're doing).Those features were gone with 8 & 10, same for latest versions of Apple software.Also, remember, Google is one of the NSA's and DoD's largest contractors. That's not by acccident.

In reply to by GUS100CORRINA

Faeriedust GUS100CORRINA Tue, 11/21/2017 - 20:37 Permalink

Um, my phone has this neat little icon on the Settings menu.  It's called Mobile Data.  When it lights up, the phone is ON the internet and data can be exchanged.  When it's dark (by deliberate setting), the phone is OFF the internet and no data goes up or down.  I keep it OFF except when I'm specifically using the internet (which is pretty much never on the phone).  Same with the Wireless setting.  OFF.  Always OFF.  And unless I expect calls, I generally keep the PHONE turned OFF, too.  I'm sure there's still some residual information leaking out.  But I do keep it to a minimum. My work computer is controlled by the evil genii of IT, who set up universal firewalls and barriers and wipe ALL the cookies EVERY NIGHT, so the work computer doesn't keep much of a record for Evil to work with.  And my home computer is at HOME.  It doesn't leave.  It's always in one place, the same place that all  public records show, so I can't easily hide where I live.  But I give them very, very little to work with.  And a lot of that is lies, too. They track bits and pieces of me.  But the ads they occasionally send my way prove that they have NO idea who I am or what really matters to me.  I keep it that way.

In reply to by GUS100CORRINA

virgule Faeriedust Tue, 11/21/2017 - 21:24 Permalink

Then you didn't understand the admitadly non-trivial explanantion in the above article. Even when you apply your settings, your phone is collecting information regarding your whereabouts, offline, from telco towers in proximity of where you are. When you do decide to switch that little "mobile data" icon on, your phone then dumps the accumulated information onto the network and towards Google's server. If there is time stamp information, then Google can figure out where you where at times in the past.

In reply to by Faeriedust

poeg Faeriedust Wed, 11/22/2017 - 06:41 Permalink

Any competent SysAdmin will tell you that what you believe to be cleaned away by dumping cookies exists and more in your dat files. Every site you've been to, passwords used etc. is all there for someone like me to pour through at will. You see a steel vault and I see a screen door... have a nice day.

In reply to by Faeriedust

Masher1 GUS100CORRINA Tue, 11/21/2017 - 22:37 Permalink

Any cell phone BY law has to have this, even without a SIM card a phone is going to do as it's programmed, Just because you THINK you are safe is in no way the truth about the reasons the phones are all, repeat ALL built the way they are.... They want this info, you are never given a choice, From the most basic flip phone to the top of the line smart phone, they all pull your pants down and photograph your stuff. I watched a movie called 'Algorithm' See here of the most carefully crafted bullshit i have ever witnessed, When you see the promos they usually use the photo of him sitting in his 'Dark room" he made with Reynolds foil... Go on try it... F-ing can learn a number of things watching so called Hacker movies if you are smart enough... i would suggest looking at this one VERY carefully for other bullshit memes... it has many.

In reply to by GUS100CORRINA

Winston Churchill johngaltfla Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:47 Permalink

Same applies to your computers bios,you have no idea if its reporting in by internet withoutyou knowing.Very telling the one company(NSA owned ?) seems to have almost a monopolyon writing that software,doesn't matter what brand of computer or processor.The NSA alreadygot caught infecting seagate disc firmware ,by Kaspersky.Thats why I laugh at the crypto pumpersthinking they have any privacy or encryption.Just not possible on any computer or network nowadays,and hackers will find those backdoors in due course.

In reply to by johngaltfla

Faeriedust Winston Churchill Tue, 11/21/2017 - 20:27 Permalink

Mine doesn't (until it dies and I have to replace it).  My security geek went into it BELOW the Bios when he wiped Windows 8 off and replaced it with Windows 7 the day after I bought it, and cleared out the spyware in the firmware. Then he died 2 years later.  So my next computer will be crap, but this one is only as insecure as I allow it to be.

In reply to by Winston Churchill

Masher1 FX223 Tue, 11/21/2017 - 20:49 Permalink

You were most likely being served this rifle scope advertisement because of what is known as a 'Beacon', A ultrasonic sound your phone is listening for in public spaces, Malls are shot full of em. Any business can access this sort of tracking tech, you would not believe the number of them in use, Retail,movie theaters, food stores,Liquor stores, the McD, burger king whatever.... The new covert way your microphone in your phone is rating you out. Your pnome can even EMIT these beacon sounds... New meaning to Marco Polo....

In reply to by FX223

pigpen FX223 Tue, 11/21/2017 - 21:16 Permalink

FX223, how in the world are you surfing the web without using an adblcker like brave browser.Brave blocks all advertising, tracking and malware by DEFAULT on any device and operating system.Brave renders digital advertising model worthless as you aren't served an ad, you don't see an ad and you aren't tracked.Destroy goobook and use brave esp run social media apps out of brave - blocks all advertising in YouTube.Cheers,Pigpen 

In reply to by FX223

JuliaS MozartIII Wed, 11/22/2017 - 01:00 Permalink

You know the auto-suggestion search that is by now implemented into every search engine and browser, or spellcheck - you know they entail? Every keystroke is being broadcast live, and they aren't even hiding it.By the way, internally google prioritizes every result you type but don't follow through on higher than the searches you actually go for when profiling. Why? Because it opens a window into your doubts and insecurities. Predictive search was the holy grail of NSA's surveillance program - knowing what you were thinking, but maybe not quite ready to tell for whatever reason. Maybe you were worried about being censored or ending up on a watch list. Maybe you were at work and someone was looking over your shoulder and you got embarrassed. That is, to you the topic was important enough to prompt such a response. Maybe you thought of something and typed it up, but consciously steered the thought into a more politically correct direction, once you realized how aggressive or offensive the statement was.Everything and everyone is spying on us 24/7 and it's been like that for many years. It's not a 2017 google-only thing. When it comes to intrusion into your life, there's an arms race between every corporate and government agency to get to your brain first and to use such data for leverage. Not even necessarily against you personally, but as a bargaining chip when negotiating with rival gangs.We're still living through the age of raw data accumulation. Even if they don't have an immediate need for it, they're saving it for later. All of it, at some point, will become a unified neural AI training set.

In reply to by MozartIII

besnook Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:19 Permalink

alright, who is going to make bazillions offering the first impermeable phone case to protect phone owners' privacy from designed or malicious hacking.

mkkby pops Wed, 11/22/2017 - 20:07 Permalink

Turns out the tin foil guy was the ONLY SANE ONE. Another conspiracy *theory* becomes fact.

Any metal box is a good faraday cage. Tool box, microwave, oven, etc... If you can't take out the battery, power it down and put in your f-cage. Do this in your car so they can't follow you everywhere you go.

Now what to do about those license plate readers.

In reply to by pops

Normalcy Bias Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:20 Permalink

They're not only tracking Android users, they're probably using every Android's Google Voice capability as a sound activated microphone that NEVER shuts off, much like an Alexa.I've turned off Google Voice on my Android, yet it frequently pops up prompting me to speak to it.The shit this company is getting away with is unbelievable. Don't Be Evil, my ass!

Skateboarder Normalcy Bias Tue, 11/21/2017 - 19:51 Permalink

BlackBerry had entered the Android market a couple of years ago. Their security hardening is pretty good, because it lets you see what APPS are doing on your phone in terms of location/camera/microphone/contact/etc. access. They log the shit out of everything EXCEPT the Android kernel itself. No one knows wtf it is doing inside some of those mystery binary blobs, until someone debug-catches shit like this.Android sucks bunghole.

In reply to by Normalcy Bias

mkkby Skateboarder Wed, 11/22/2017 - 20:12 Permalink

Never buy a smart phone you cannot root and install an open source android version. It takes some research to find out how to do this, and which phones are supported.

Once you do, you will never have to use google software on your phone again. Just like with a computer you can decide what software you will use/delete. The carriers are just as bad and this allows you to ditch their crap too.

Just understand, every cell phone can be tracked by which towers you are near. This is how cell phones work, so no way to avoid this.

In reply to by Skateboarder