Android devices that have location services disabled, have been factory reset and even devices that don't have a SIM card are likely subject to this data collection. The process benefits the company as the data so collected enables advertisers target the right customers.
21, the Quartz online site contended that since at least the beginning of this year, newer Android phones have been collecting addresses of a user's nearby cellular tower and relaying that data back to Google. Multiple towers within a city could triangulate a position to less than a quarter-mile, however, and track a person's movements throughout the day. But we're not talking about that kind of accuracy in this case.
Those with Android devices, which use the web giant's operating system, have been unwittingly sending their location to the company whenever they are in range of a mobile mast.
The data sent to Google is encrypted, but it could potentially be sent to a third party if the phone had been compromised with spyware or other methods of hacking, Quartz noted. In hindsight, the only thing such people could have done is use burner phones. "It sounds paranoid", Poitras said to Greenwald at the time, before explaining that the government can activate cell phones and laptops remotely to eavesdrop. But that's nearly beside the point. Don't want your location data mined?
It is, as Quartz puts it, "far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy". What Quartz found is that Google's betraying the public's trust.
The Cell ID was never incorporated into Google's network sync system and all the data was "immediately discarded", the company said.
Location tracking via smartphones is a common practice used by all the major players, either locally on the device or remotely on a server and is used to provide numerous services expected of a modern phone.
A person familiar with the matter told us that this was a feature that was meant to improve battery life and the timeliness of receiving messages. There is no way of opting out without removing all Google services from your device. But when you turn off location services, you expect location data to stop working altogether as well.
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.