If you are using an Android phone, Google may be tracking every move you make

Jan 25, 2018, 02:00 PM

Biking? Google probably knows you are. Up a mountain? It probably knows that, too.

The Alphabet subsidiary’s location-hungry tentacles are quietly lurking behind some of the most innovative features of its Android mobile operating system. Once those tentacles latch on, phones using Android begin silently transmitting data back to the servers of Google, including everything from GPS coordinates to nearby wifi networks, barometric pressure, and even a guess at the phone-holder’s current activity. Although the product behind those transmissions is opt-in, for Android users it can be hard to avoid and even harder to understand. Opting in is also required to use several of Android’s marquee features.

As a result, Google holds more extensive data on Android users than some ever realize. That data can be used by the company to sell targeted advertising. It can also be used to track into stores those consumers who saw ads on their phone or computer urging them to visit.1 This also means governments and courts can request the detailed data on an individual’s whereabouts.

While you’ve probably never heard of it, “Location History” is a longtime Google product with origins in the now-defunct Google Latitude. (Launched in 2009, that app allowed users to constantly broadcast their location to friends.) Today, Location History is used to power features like traffic predictions and restaurant recommendations. While it is not enabled on an Android phone by default—or even suggested to be turned on when setting up a new phone—activating Location History is subtly baked into setup for apps like Google Maps, Photos, the Google Assistant, and the primary Google app. In testing multiple phones, Quartz found that none of those apps use the same language to describe what happens when Location History is enabled, and none explicitly indicate that activation will allow every Google app, not just the one seeking permission, to access Location History data.

Quartz was able to capture transmissions of Location History information on three phones from different manufacturers, running various recent versions of Android. To accomplish this, we created a portable internet-connected wifi network that could eavesdrop and forward all of the transmissions that the devices connected to it broadcast and received.2 None of the devices had SIM cards inserted. We walked around urban areas; shopping centers; and into stores, restaurants, and bars. The rig recorded every relevant network request3 made by the Google Pixel 2, Samsung Galaxy S8, and Moto Z Droid that we were carrying.

According to our analysis of the phones’ transmissions, this is just some of the information that gets periodically sent to Google’s servers when Location History is enabled:

A list of types of movements that your phone thinks you could be doing, by likelihood. (e.g. walking: 51%, onBicycle: 4%, inRailVehicle: 3%)

The MAC address—which is a unique identifier—of the wifi access point you’re connected to

The MAC address, signal strength, and frequency of every nearby wifi access point

The MAC address, identifier, type, and two measures of signal strength of every nearby Bluetooth beacon

The charge level of your phone battery and whether or not your phone is charging

The GPS coordinates of your phone and the accuracy of those coordinates

“That goes beyond what you’d expect for Location History,” Bill Budington a security engineer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Quartz when these transmissions were described to him, “especially in terms of predicted activity.” The EFF is a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital civil liberties, freedom, and privacy, which both I and Google have made charitable contributions to in the past.4

Google, accurately, describes Location History as entirely opt-in. “With your permission, Google uses your Location History to deliver better results and recommendations on Google products,” a spokesman wrote to Quartz in an email. “For...