Over the course of the last decade or so, the question of how much of our privacy we’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience has been intensely debated. It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when people were hesitant to provide their credit card information to sites such as Amazon.com because they simply didn’t trust the idea of making purchases over the internet versus in neighborhood stores like they always had. Flash forward to today, and Amazon is one of the biggest (and most successful) corporations on planet Earth.
The smartphone revolution that we’re still firmly in the middle of has only made this question more important. Think about all of the information you trust to companies such as Apple and Google. Think about what someone would have access to if you lost your phone — or worse, if it was stolen right out from under you.
All of this requires a certain degree of trust. You must have faith that Google will not store any personal information that you don’t want it to. Many Google services even have settings that give users more control over information such as location data, including what specifically is being tracked and for how long it is actually stored.
Unfortunately, it seems that level of control was only an illusion, particularly in the case of Google. The tech giant recently admitted that it has been tracking user location data in certain situations, even when the appropriate setting was turned off. What’s worse, it did so in a way that users had no way of knowing about — via the types of cellphone towers that you probably drive by dozens of times a day as you go about your daily business.
Google and location data: What happened
According to a new report that was first published by The Verge, many different Google-powered Android phones have been collecting user location data since at least January 2017. Whenever a user passes by a cellular tower, the address of that tower is collected, encrypted and sent back to both Google’s push notification system and messaging management system, so long as an internet connection is present.
The thing that has most people up in arms is the fact that this is essentially a practice that Google users cannot opt out of. Even if the appropriate setting was switched off and even if their phones were factory reset, this information (and more) is still being collected and transmitted.
A Google spokesperson with a particularly interesting spin on the situation indicated that as far as the company is concerned, this isn’t actually a privacy violation at all. Because of the type of network sync system that Android phones use, the information about nearby cellular towers was actually considered a feature, not a bug — it was used to “improve the speed and performance of message delivery.”
To say that this response left a lot to be desired as far as privacy advocates were concerned was something of an understatement.
What really makes this situation a tricky one comes down to what someone could find out about you if they were to get their hands on that cellular tower information. So long as the addresses of two or three cellular towers were obtained — as they likely were, considering the number of them that are probably in your area — someone’s location could easily be determined down to a quarter-mile radius. In addition to the question of exactly what Google is doing with this information, it could lead to further privacy and security concerns with regard to hackers looking to obtain personal information.
To Google’s credit, a software update that removes this cell tower data collection “feature” will begin rolling out at the end of December 2017. For many privacy concerned users, however, this may be a classic case of too little, too late. It’s difficult to say how this will affect Google’s reputation as a customer-centric technology provider or if it will actually have any negative implications at all moving forward.