On November 23rd, Naked Security reported that a new report from Quartz revealed that Google has been collecting the locations of Androids (and therefore their users) – triangulating them via nearby cell towers. Quartz tested it on devices that had no apps installed, that lacked SIM cards, and that had location services turned off. That ought to do it, right?
But when contacted by Quartz, Google admitted it's been calling home with cellphone tower data since January 2017, no matter what we stipulate in our settings.
A Google spokesperson told Quartz that Android devices have been sending the addresses of nearby cell towers as part of the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages. The spokesperson said that the location data was never used, and therefore was never stored. Can you disable this feature? Nope.
However, the spokesperson told Quartz that Google is "taking steps to end the practice…at least as part of this particular service." Google didn't say whether there are other Android services that do this, but it did say that Android phones will stop gobbling up cell tower location data by this coming Thursday.
Quartz observed the location data being shared even on devices reset to factory default settings and apps. Mobile phones keep in touch with the cellular network even if you don't have a SIM card inserted, which is why you'll see a signal strength indicator even when you're not able to make calls. So, Google gets data every time a device comes within range of a new cell tower, and as long as the device has Internet access – even if you're only connected over Wi-Fi. Google can call home with that data.
There is no particular reason to distrust Google's motivation here or its statement that the data was destroyed, but the lack of transparency is disturbing.
How does one avoid being tracked by cell phone towers that track you even with location services turned off? Most consumers no doubt think that powering down their phones should prevent it from emitting or receiving a signal. Maybe not.
The article cites the possibility that a phone can be traced even when it is turned off. The US State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 2013 warned travelers to the Winter Olympic Games in Russia to be extremely cautious with communications. The department's list of precautions included removing batteries from phones when not in use. Edward Snowden himself told people to store their phones in the refrigerator, given that it operates as a Faraday cage that blocks electromagnetic fields.
So real safety may only be found in removing batteries or storing the phone next to your Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge!
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology