Android phones 'betray' user location to Google

Tammy Harvey
November 26, 2017

The KCC or Korea Communications Commission is conducting an inquiry into claims that Google has collected cell ID data of users without their consent even when the smartphones they were using had in inactive location service, said a member of the KCC.

Regulators in the United Kingdom and South Korea consider launching investigations into Google's (GOOG, GOOGL) practice of collecting location data on smartphone users without permission. Android phones are no longer requesting Cell ID codes, and collection should be phased out this month, it said.

News website Quartz reported Android phones gathered information about nearby mobile phone masts and shared those details with Google. The collected data sent back to the Google's servers, which may be an invasion of privacy.

The benefit of having the address of the mobile phone mast to ensure message service reliability is not clear, but through a process of triangulation - the same used to assist when a user is actively using location services - 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.

"In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery", Google spokesperson said in an email. "However, we never incorporated Cell ID into our network sync system, so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID".

A spokesperson told The Verge that the cellular tower data was supposed to make message delivery faster, but Google chose to ditch the plan. However, if an Android device were to be stolen, it could end up compromising the cell tower data.

Google confirmed the practice when Quartz asked.

It is still unclear how cell-tower addresses that helps in identifying a specific cell tower, could have been used to improve message delivery. Google was previously charged over 210 million won (US$193,000) in KCC penalties after being found to have collected wireless LAN (Wi-Fi) information without consent when developing its Street View photo-based map service in South Korea in 2014.

Other reports by Ligue1talk

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