In November, it emerged that Google had been effectively tracking Android phone users’ locations since January 2017. Even when the smartphone’s location services were switched off; even when no apps were being used; even when no SIM card was installed in the device. So how do you stop Android tracking you?
Let’s first understand Google’s modus operandi. A report by Quartz revealed that “Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers – even when location services are disabled – and sending that data back to Google”.
Although Google says that the tower lqocations were never saved and assured Quartz that the practice would be stopped at the end of November, the fact that it took an investigation for the tech giant to come clean about the extent of its cell tower data collection is troubling.
Even Android devices that had been reset to default settings, with location services completely disabled, were tracked. Moreover, if SIM-less smartphones were connected to Wi-Fi, they would still send the tower addresses to Google.
“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.”
However, there is no mention of what happens when location services are switched off, with the firm telling Quartz that the way it controls messages and push notifications is “distinctly separate from Location Services, which provide a device’s location to apps”.
“Hang on,” I hear you splutter. “Apps are doing it, too?!” Yep. In fact, according to the French research organisation Exodus Privacy and Yale University’s Privacy Lab, more than three in four Android apps house a third-party tracker. That includes staples such as Spotify, Uber (which, in August, ceased its practice of tracking users for five minutes after their journey had ended) and even Tinder.
Stop Android tracking you: General settings
This doesn’t mean we should all fling our Android phones into the sea. If Google is to be believed, it has now ceased collecting the addresses of cell towers, meaning the best way to (hopefully) stay incognito is to turn off the general location services and the ones for specific apps. Here’s how:
Head to Settings | Location services (or Settings | Advanced settings | Location services). You will then be confronted with the following screen.
To switch off location services completely, aka the nuclear option, simply toggle the top slider. This may generate a warning that you won’t be able to find your phone if it’s lost. If you want to take that risk, tap Okay.
This switch can also be accessed directly through the Google Maps app. Tap the three-line “burger” icon in the top-left of the screen and scroll down to Settings | Google location settings.
Stop Android tracking you: Individual apps
As mentioned above, many apps will request access to your location by default. If you’re unsure which are tracking you, it’s very easy to view and disable their permissions.
Tap through to either a) Settings | General | Apps | Configure apps, b) Settings | General | Apps | App settings | App permissions or c) simply type “App permissions” into the Settings search bar. This will bring up a list of different permissions, including Contacts, Camera, Microphone and Body sensors.
Scroll down and tap “Your location”, which will bring up a list of your apps – each with an enable/disable slider next to them.
You may be surprised at some the apps that have been granted permission and it’s worth checking back regularly just in case one slips through the net.
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