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Google caught covertly collecting users’ location data: Here’s why you shouldn’t be paranoid

Google has admitted it had been collecting cell tower location data of Android users, but adds it will end the practice by the end of this month.

tech Updated: Nov 22, 2017 11:46 IST
Kul Bhushan
Kul Bhushan
Hindustan Times
Google,Google Location Services,Google Data Leak
Google comes under the scanner for secretly collecting users’ location data.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Google has acknowledged it has been collecting cell tower location data (Cell ID) even when users disabled location services on their Android phones.

The company has been collecting the information, which could jeopardise privacy, since beginning of this year, according to a report by Quartz.

Quartz found Android devices transmitting data even if users did not use a SIM card on their phones and the transmission continued even after a factory reset.

Despite the encryption, if the data reaches cyber criminals, it can be potentially used for targeted online attacks .

Responding to Quartz’s investigation, a Google spokesperson told the publication: “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. 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.”

The Verge, citing a Google spokesperson, revealed that all modern Android phones come with a network sync system that uses mobile country codes and network codes. The website adds that Google may have been collecting Cell ID codes in order to improve its Firebase Cloud Messaging, a technology that requires devices to ping the server within particular time period to get messages.

Meanwhile, The Register in its report suggested that Oracle might be behind Google’s always-on location settings. US-based security researcher Ashkan Soltani claimed the tip off could have been given by Oracle, which has been at loggerheads with Google over a variety of issues. Back in 2010, Oracle had sued Google for allegedly infringing upon its Java copyrights and patents. Orcale though lost the case last year.

Should you be worried?

It’s natural to panic over Google’s new data collection tactic, but the company says it is now shelving the practice by end of this month.

Mashable in its reports stresses that Cell ID and Location Services are not the same thing. Unlike location services, Cell ID doesn’t switch on GPS on your phone – which is a more crude way to track location of a user.

“To ensure messages and notifications are received quickly, modern Android phones use a network sync system that requires the use of Mobile Country Codes (MCC) and Mobile Network Codes (MNC). 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. 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. MCC and MNC provide necessary network information for message and notification delivery and are distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps,” Google told Mashable.

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 11:45 IST