Android Tracking: Your Phone is Following You

Both Google and Apple have had some big privacy concerns pushed upon them in the past week after revelations that phones powered by iOS or Android store a user’s location in a history that can even be mapped out to show where you’ve been. Of course, we’ve known for a long time that our smartphones know where we are, but not that they’ve been storing that data in a file that’s relatively easy to access.

Location services that use a phone’s GPS have been fairly popular on smartphones. They provide an interesting specification to phones that allow them to transform into navigation systems and to allow you to find out their position should they be lost or stolen.

For iOS, a user can download a simple application that maps out your location history from accessing a database file that’s stored on whatever computer you’ve synced your phone with. For Android it’s a little more difficult to retrieve the file, but it’s still there and doing a similar job to Apple’s file.

What’s Being Logged?

In addition to storing your valuable location, Google is apparently noting your device ID and also WiFi hotspots that your phone has encountered. This is valuable data to Google especially with all their public services that could utilise this data, such as Maps which has already faced controversy over WiFi tracking.

There’s no evidence that this data is being used in a bad way on either platform, although Google has admitted that it is being sent back anonymously. On iOS, the infamous John Gruber has already said that it’s a bug that should be fixed in a software update.

On Android it’s a different story. In order for Google to log this data, one needs to specifically opt in for them to do so. During setup, a user is asked whether they want to use Google-provided location services which covers this type of activity.

Google already have a Maps service with the popular StreetView feature. It has faced controversy in the past.

How To: Stop Android Tracking You

There is a fairly simple way to cease tracking and stop your data being sent back to Google. There are three type of location services active on most Android handsets: carrier services (provided by your service provider), GPS-based ones, and those provided by Google.

In order to turn them off, one only needs to go to the Settings panel on their Android phone and head to Location Services. Unchecking the Google Services checkbox will sever your connection with Google and halt any tracking.

Should You Care?

From what we can tell, this data might be going back to Google. I vaguely remember reading about it and seeing a quote from a Google spokesperson where they note it is being transferred to Google, but anonymously. If it isn’t tied to you, do you care?

Personally, I don’t. Unless you’re some master criminal or you’ve got something to hide, then you shouldn’t be worried about Google’s intervention. What does worry me, however, are the possibilities if my phone is stolen.

It’s been said that accessing this data on Android is a lot harder than doing so on iOS, but it’s there and is certainly accessible. If someone does get your phone, they have a basic history of where you’ve been and where you might be going. This doesn’t sound good.

Final Thoughts

There’s always going to be controversy, even if it’s over something good. Google has addressed the issues, unlike Apple, saying, “All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices.”

The key part of that statement is “provide a better mobile experience”. Google has a big interest in Maps, with their highly popular service and in location-based networking. Google bought out Dodgeball, for example, and they have also been spotted talking to Dodgeball’s co-creator Dennis Crowley, who now works with Foursquare. It seems like Google is intentionally collecting the data, whereas Apple might not be.

If you’re an iPhone user, check out our sister site’s poll on this very topic affecting iOS.

Do you care about your location being logged like this? Let us know in the comments!