Google tracks Android users, even if location feature is turned off

A cellular communication tower is seen in March 6, 2014 in Oakland, California.
A cellular communication tower is seen in March 6, 2014 in Oakland, California. GETTY IMAGES

Google has been tracking the locations of Android users since January, even if they have location tracking turned off, the company has confirmed.

Users were not aware the information was being collected, and have no way of opting out of it.

The data was gathered as part of an effort to find out how often a phone should “ping” a cell tower to stay connected to Google’s servers, a process Google calls “heartbeat analysis,” Google says.

READ MORE: Is a stalker spying on you through your phone? Here’s what to look for

Too-frequent pinging wastes battery power, while not enough pinging risks disconnecting, a company spokesperson who spoke on the condition she not be identified explained in an email.

Starting in January, Google began asking Android devices for the unique ID, or “cell ID,” of the cell towers they were connected to. Triangulating between cell towers will reveal a device’s location to a high degree of accuracy, especially in urban areas where towers are more common.

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The information was never stored, and the practice will end by the end of November, she wrote.

READ MORE: Does your phone help build Google’s traffic maps? (And is that bad?)

The practice came to light after Quartz published a story Tuesday.

The practice is separate from location tracking with Google Maps Timeline, a more transparent service that keeps track of users’ movements. It is supposed to be opt-in, but opting in without realizing it seems to not be difficult.

The disadvantage of Google Maps Timeline is that anyone who gets access to a user’s Google login information can see a complete record of their movements, potentially going back for years.

READ MORE: Google Maps Timeline: Why a little-known Google feature tracked me for months

Google did not respond to questions about whether the practice conforms to Canadian privacy laws.

However, it does seem to broadly comply with Google’s privacy policy, which warns that “When you use Google services, we may collect and process information about your actual location. We use various technologies to determine location, including IP address, GPS, and other sensors that may, for example, provide Google with information on nearby devices, Wi-Fi access points and cell towers.”

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“Given that we may have to investigate a complaint on the issue, it would be inappropriate ‎to comment without proceeding with a formal investigation,” wrote Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the federal privacy commissioner.

“We plan to follow up with Google to seek further information.”

Federal privacy law requires private companies to get consent to collect personal information, and to do so “only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances,” she wrote.