Since early 2017, Google has been collecting location data from all modern Android devices, according to a report from Quartz. The company did not limit its collection of data to devices with Location Services enabled, instead opting to collect data from any device that connected to the internet, even if Location Service were disabled and the device did not have a carrier SIM card.
Google began collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers from users devices in early 2017 after a change to Firebase Cloud Messaging service. Firebase, owned by Google, runs by default on Android devices. Firebase Cloud Messaging allows third-party app developers to send notifications and messages to devices running both Android and iOS.
While the address of a singular cellular tower can provide a general location, the ability to triangulate data from multiple towers can provide much more in-depth location data. While the data collected for devices in rural and suburban areas may only provide a location within a quarter of a mile, the high density of cellular towers in urban areas can provide much more detailed information.
The report comes after U.S. lawmakers blasted internet companies like Google on its increasingly invasive data collection practices. While data collection can be useful for certain tasks, internet companies are increasingly collecting very personal information including voting histories, location data, and purchasing histories. This data can then be used to create extremely targeted marketing and advertisers for users.
When contacted by Quartz, a Google spokesperson stated the data collected through Firebase was “distinctly separate from Location Services, which provides a device’s location to apps.” While Location Services can be disabled on Android devices, Google did not give users an option to opt-out of the collection of data from cellular towers.
In an email to Quartz, Google stated the data was used to “further improve the speed and performance of message delivery” and that the data was “never incorporated in our network sync stem, so that data was immediately discarded.” In the same email, Google announced it discontinued its collection of cellular location data from Android devices.