In a grim counterpoint to the news that Uber paid hackers $100,000 to keep mum after they stole information on 57 million users, Quartz revealed today that Android phones continue to report location information even while your phone is off. You can’t stop it, you don’t have to have used any apps, and as soon as you’re back on the internet, the device relays data about where you’ve been back to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent and the maker of Android.
It is, as Quartz puts it, “far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.” The tech-news site tested it internally, reported it to Google, and the company said it will halt the practice by the end of November.
Giving Google the benefit of the doubt, it’s not as if they were deliberately tracking everybody. It looks more like they were (inexcusably) naive about the ability of the existing network cell-phone towers to triangulate users’ locations down to a narrow area — especially in heavily built-up places like cities, where the towers are denser. As each individual phone has an ID number that’s unique to it, identifying people would not be hard to do — although, in fairness, the data was encrypted. Hopefully, we’re way beyond the “Well, if you don’t have anything to hide, what are you so worried about?” phase of the civil liberties debates, but this would have obvious ramifications for plenty of people who don’t want their location history potentially made accessible for the benefit of third parties.
At the same time, Google’s vast repository of wealth owes to its unrivaled ability to learn everything about us and sell that ever-more-granular information to advertisers. It’s the underlying basis for every free Google product.
Further, as Quartz notes, there doesn’t seem to be a technical rationale for this practice: “It is not clear how cell-tower addresses, transmitted as a data string that identifies a specific cell tower, could have been used to improve message delivery. The fact that Android users weren’t able to opt out is perhaps the most glaring. Google’s defense to Quartz that push notifications and location-monitoring were two separate divisions of the company feels unconvincing. Still, next time you complain about being shown ads that don’t seem to have anything to do with who you are or what you buy, maybe be thankful that they don’t quite know everything about you yet.