Google’s Android has had more than its fair share of security problems over the years, but most of them involve a third-party app being able to do something it shouldn’t be able to, or someone finding a security hole in an older version of Android.
A new security problem has now come to light that not only doesn’t require any sort of third-party intervention and is entirely of Google’s own doing, but also impacts all Android devices and has done since the turn of the year.
According to a report by Quartz, Google’s Android smartphones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers and then transmitting that data back to the company’s servers. Google claims that this information was never stored or used, and that it will cease such practices before the end of the month, but that is likely to be scant consolation for those concerned about their location data and the security of it.
The cell tower addresses have been included in information sent to the system Google uses to manage push notifications and messages on Android phones for the past 11 months, according to a Google spokesperson. The were never used or stored, the spokesperson said, and the company is now taking steps to end the practice after being contacted by Quartz.
Particularly worrying is the fact that there appears to be no way to disable this behavior, meaning no matter what users do, their location is inadvertently being shared with Google. Even if the company is not using that data, and third-party application developers are unable to access it, the fact it even exists is troublesome.
Even devices that had been reset to factory default settings and apps, with location services disabled, were observed by Quartz sending nearby cell-tower addresses to Google. Devices with a cellular data or WiFi connection appear to send the data to Google each time they come within range of a new cell tower. When Android devices are connected to a WiFi network, they will send the tower addresses to Google even if they don’t have SIM cards installed.
While we would not say we subscribe to the notion that Google is up to no good here, the fact such a thing is happening without users’ knowledge is a huge concern, and will do nothing to persuade some that Google is not doing untold and unimaginable things with our data, not least our location data.
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