Google confirmed that it can track the location of Android users via the addresses of local mobile phone masts, even when location services were turned off and the sim cards removed, according to a report by Quartz.
The position of the user can be revealed down to a roughly 400m radius at a minimum, and often much more accurately in urban areas.
How is it done?
Google’s Android system, which handles messaging services to ensure delivery of push notifications, has been requesting the unique addresses of mobile phone masts (called Cell ID) at the beginning of 2017.
The information received was captured by the phone and routinely sent to Google by any modern Android device. This was done even when location services were turned off, and the sim card was removed.
Thus, Google possesses the power to track the location of the Android device and hence the user. This is in contradiction to the expectation of privacy that any user has.
But a Google spokesperson has said that the Cell ID was never incorporated into the system and that the data immediately discarded and it was updated to no longer request Cell ID.
Along with Cell ID, Google had requested for mobile country code and cellular network code, which identify the country and mobile phone operator that the smartphone is using. The data received would help Google to keep the phone connected to Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging system, which handles the delivery of messages and notifications to the smartphone.
In a research carried out by Google, called ‘heartbeat analysis’, it has been established that country and mobile network code helps in reducing the number of pings by the phone to stay connected to the Google server. This would eventually help reduce draining of the phone battery.
Location tracking via smartphones is a common by all the major players, either locally on the device or remotely on a server and is used to provide many of the services like that of mapping, weather forecasts, localised news, shopping services etc.
However, in most cases, it is possible to prevent the location tracking systems from recording data, if the services are disabled and the privacy settings are set on. But that was not the case with the Cell ID collection.