Google Tracked User Location even when GPS Turned Off

John Lister's picture

Google has admitted it tracked the location of cellphone users even when they had location services switched off. It says it's now stopped an 11-month program designed to improve "message delivery."

Having location services switched on allows an Android phone to collect information about a user's location, commonly combining GPS data, details of nearby WiFi networks, and the location of nearby cellphone towers - all of which can be detected by a phone.

Google - and third party app makers - use this data for tools such as mapping, navigation and finding nearby outlets of a particular chain of stores or restaurants. Some users disable the GPS location setting either for privacy reasons or to reduce battery drain.

Location Collected Even Without SIM card

However, tech site "Quartz" has now revealed that Google has been collecting cellphone tower addresses since the start of this year, even when location services is switched off. In fact, the data collection happened even if the phone didn't have an active SIM card, meaning that users could be tracked even if the device was being used strictly for WiFi connections and not cellular voice and data. (Source:

Individual cellphone towers only give a vague idea of somebody's whereabouts, but combining details of multiple towers can give a more precise location, particularly in urban areas with a lot of towers close together.

The data collection was part of the system Google uses for "push" notifications such as for emails and messaging. This is where the notification of a new message goes straight to the phone, without the user having to actively retrieve messages.

Google Didn't Keep Location Data

Google says it collected the data because it was "using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery." It didn't elaborate on how this would work. According to Google, it never used the location data and instead immediately discarded it. It's since changed the system to stop collecting any data at all.

As Google didn't store the data, the effects may be limited. For example, it means there's no legal risks of police demanding Google hand over details of a person's movements as an alternative to getting that information from phone service providers. There was the security risk that the data might have been intercepted whilst being transmitted to Google, though Google says it was done in encrypted form. (Source:

Perhaps the biggest problem is the potential lack of trust from people who reasonably expected their location was not being tracked, particularly those who had safety or privacy reasons to switch location tracking off.

What's Your Opinion?

How serious were Google's actions? Is it a case of no harm, no foul because the data wasn't kept? Or is it a significant breach of trust to track location data from people who had explicitly turned that feature off?

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JeffRL's picture

Remember when Google's motto was "Do No Evil"? I do.

Google doesn't remember that at all.

beach.boui's picture

There should be a class action lawsuit against Google for this breech of privacy. No doubt, they have preemptively attempted to cover their asses in the ToU agreement that we are forced to accept before being able to used out Android phones.

There is, however, no reason to believe that Apple hasn't done the same thing in the past, or might in the future. And, there is no reason to believe that Google won't do the same thing again whenever they feel like it. If there is no outrage from the public for this violation of individual privacy, Google and others will feel at liberty to do it whenever they wish.

We are a nation of idiots.

matt_2058's picture

This is one of the few times I believe the only way our privacy will be protected is by government intervention. Time for some blanket restrictions on Terms of Use.

Chief's picture

Cell phones by their very nature are trackable. Every phone (computer or other connected device) in existence has a unique number which can be tracked. Until the very fabric of the inter-connected web is changed to allow each and every device to be randomly aliased at intervals, tracking technology can only be slowed, stymied, impaired, etc. It cannot ever be stopped. I offer this analogy: just as a car has a VIN number which is unique, most people go by the license plate (which can be changed randomly) to find the car as the plate is easier to spot.

Watcher007's picture

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, whoever; it doesn't matter what they do because now anyone can simply use the Hillary defense.

Thanks J. Edgar Comey!

All they have to do is say they didn't know it was illegal and Comey will make a public announcement that the FBI looked into it, found that in fact it was illegal, but that they found no evidence that they meant to do evil.

Voila! Presto! more problems!

Great to be a liberal these days.