Privacy is a word that sounds wonderful, but if you’re an Android user, it seems that might be the furthest thing from the truth. New reports indicate that Google has been tracking users even after they’ve disabled GPS.
In fact, according to a report from Quartz, Google can track users even if there’s no SIM card in the phone, GPS is turned off, and no apps have been used whatsoever. This is possible thanks to the phones picking up information about the nearest cell towers and sending out that info to Google once there’s an Internet connection.
Google has confirmed this to Quartz and, according to them, the whole situation has only been going on since the beginning of the year, when the company began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery. “However, we never incorporated Cell ID into our network sync system, so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated it to longer request Cell ID,” a spokesperson said, adding that by the end of November this type of data will no longer get sent to Google.
The implications this scheme has on user privacy are immense. There are over a billion Android users, part of whom have certainly turned off their GPS, hoping not only to save some battery life on their smartphones, but also to prevent Google from knowing just about everything about them. Having the company know about every step we take is an obvious threat to our privacy and it may end up exposing our cyber secrets even when we do not wish to do so.
Theoretically, the data sent to Google is encrypted, but some sort of spyware installed on the device could very well also send the information elsewhere, which would make that encryption completely obsolete. Associating the unique ID number of each phone with the location data can make it very easy for all of us to be tracked. What if we had been somewhere we said we weren’t and made sure to turn off the GPS with the purpose of avoiding Google’s ever-watching eye? What if that information somehow gets out?
Companies like Google already collect bucketloads of data on us. It’s not just the apps you use on your phone, who you send emails to, where you like to go when using Waze or Google Maps, or the web pages you visit when browsing the Internet using Chrome; it’s so much more data coming from your phone’s sensors, as well as data that can be cross-checked so they figure out whether you’re religious or not, what your political affiliations are and whether you’re sick or not, to name just a few.
There is, however, a difference between the data you know you’re sharing with Google, and the data the company is collecting on you without your knowledge or agreement.
Furthermore, a phone’s location information falls into the metadata category and we all know how much that has been a target of abuse from law enforcement. In fact, the fact that this is “just metadata” has been a big defense point for the NSA back when the Snowden scandal hit. The NSA argued they weren’t actually snooping on people’s conversation, and that it was only metadata they gathered in their mass surveillance programs. Aside from location, the NSA also gathered things like information on who was talking to whom, what time the conversations took place, how long they talked, and so on. Such privacy breaches don’t only happen in the United States, of course. A newer incident involves the police in Australia who admitted one of their officers illegally accessed a journalist’s call records. Since metadata collection is something that’s demanded of telcos in many countries across the world for a certain period of time, there are probably many instances of abuse that we don’t know about.