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Google admits to tracking Android users

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Google has admitted to silently tracking the locations of Android smartphone owners even when location services has been explicitly turned off. The company has been secretly uploaded details of nearby cell towers to its servers since the start of 2017, reported Digital Journal (Canada).

The data collection was revealed by Quartz in an investigation into Android's location services. The publication observed Android smartphones continuing to upload location details to Google servers, even after Android's Location Services had been turned off. Google confirmed the practice and has faced an outpouring of criticism from web users today.

Quartz discovered that Google has been collecting cell tower addresses using the same servers that manage Android push notifications. Google insisted that the data was never stored on its servers. It said it was using the information to "improve the speed and performance of message discovery."
Google has not explained exactly how the mechanism works. It's also failed to discuss the obvious privacy implications of continuing to track users who've specifically opted out of sharing their location.

The collection activities are understood to have been ongoing for the past 11 months and affected all Android devices running recent versions of the operating system. Data was transmitted over Wi-Fi and cellular connections, including on tablets with Wi-Fi-only networking and no mobile SIM card.

Google's been under fire recently for its controversial information collection practices and the limited control it provides to users. As The Next Web points out, the company's privacy policy is vague on whether location data may still be collected when Location Services is turned off. Google appears to be using an overarching clause to indiscriminately harvest data whenever users engage with a device:
"When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location. We use various technologies to determine location, including IP address, GPS and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and mobile towers."

The passage indicates that Google's activity may fall within its interpretation of its privacy policy. However, security experts have heavily criticised the company's failure to properly inform its users. Members of the security community variously described the unreported data collection as "intrusive," "concerning" and "a betrayal of users." Google's pledged to stop collecting cell information from Android devices before the end of November. Users will have to wait and accept the company's words as there is no way to manually disable the activity without going completely offline.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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