A spokesperson for Google reportedly said it used cell tower data to send push notifications and messages, but did not store the information.
Google has been mostly interested in the addresses of individual cell towers the users are connected to. The company claims it did not put this information into the sync system though, which means it was allegedly discarded immediately.
Google is no stranger to controversies over privacy, but a new revelation about Android phones is pretty chilling. (It wouldn't be necessarily reasonable to assume cell providers weren't, as that's what's needed to deliver messages and notifications if the user isn't using a WiFi connection.) But no one would reasonably assume the operating system would still send cell tower info to Google with the SIM card pulled.
After being contacted by Quartz, Google says it's now taking steps to end the practice by the end of November.
Though Google made a change to the Firebase Cloud Messaging system in January to also request Cell ID codes that it planned to use to further beef it up, it never fully integrated it.
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Some researchers have said that although the data is encrypted, it is possible to send the data to third party services if the handset is affected with spyware.
This marks the second time in recent months the search giant has been caught collecting user data under questionable circumstances.
Curiously, Google does indeed mention it gleans location data, but does not state whether this is the case when location services have been disabled.
Google started collecting data from cellular towers to determine where users were located. Google does say that the location data it collects isn't shared with anyone and that's probably true. 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.
Google has also confirmed this saying that Android devices collect the addresses of the nearby cellular towers and transmit that data back to its servers. The data provides a way to categorize and label people (sometimes in unflattering terms) such as: financial newsletter subscriber, allergy sufferer, "financially challenged", Twitter user with more than 250 friends, and "working-class moms".
It is unclear how identifying the nearest cell tower could be used to improve Google's message services.