Previously, the U.S. website Quartz reported that Android smartphones had been relaying location information to Google servers in real time without the user's consent since the beginning of 2017, confirming that the transmission took place "even when location services are disabled".
Google confirmed the tracking, which goes back to the beginning of the year, and said the company would stop the practice by the end of this month. The reports mean that recently tower information transmitted by Android smartphones has been sent in real time to Google's servers.
Google said the data was collected to improve notifications and message delivery, and was not stored on Google servers.
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The data could be used to work out a person's position. "However, we had never integrated the user's Cell ID data into our network sync system, so that the collected data was immediately destroyed, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID". Information about the towers where mobile phones send their signals can be used to identify the user's location to within a radius of a few hundred meters.
Location tracking via smartphones is a common practice used by all the major players, either locally on the device or remotely on a server and is used to provide numerous services expected of a modern phone.
A spokesperson told The Verge that the cellular tower data was supposed to make message delivery faster, but Google chose to ditch the plan.
Beyond mapping services, location data is used for delivering the weather, localized news results, shopping services, augmented reality features and even things as mundane as the ability to pair two different wireless devices simply by colocation.
Basically, Google's explanation suggests the location tracking was done in order to enhance messaging services. That was not the case with the Cell ID collection, whether or not the data was stored by Google.