Location Tracking? ‘Droid Does


Last week, the Internet was alight with stories of iPhone location tracking. While this wasn’t exactly breaking news in security circles, it was new information to many people out there. Lots of blogs were full of commentary on the situation, including ours, with many Android users chiming in saying, “Android doesn’t do that”.

Well, that’s not entirely true – the playing field is far more level than most people would like to admit.

Android does have the same tracking capability, as do Windows Mobile phones for that matter. Both companies also monitor the cell towers you have connected to, as well as which Wi-Fi hotspots you have passed by. All three companies anonymize the data, though they do assign a unique ID to your location details in order to tell you apart from other users.

Where things really differ is in regards to how much information is stored. Microsoft claims that they only store the most recent location entry, while Andriod systems store the 200 most recent Wi-Fi hotspot locations as well as the most recent 50 cell towers.

At the end of the day each vendor does allow you to opt out of the tracking services, and if you are seriously concerned about the data they are tracking, you can always periodically wipe the information from your handset, should you desire.

[Image via TheTelecomBlog]

40 thoughts on “Location Tracking? ‘Droid Does

  1. Well one potential solution to preventing the Android from storing data and reporting it back would be modifying the OS source and building it.

    Anyone know how feasible this would be?

  2. So because you’re going to have GPS, you’re going to have some level of tracking, but the fact that both platform have some history of locations bothers me and I wish both parties would disclose this information.

  3. One difference is that Apple doesn’t allow you to switch it off, or delete the database, unless you jailbreak the phone, which could give you problems if Apple ever decide to get childish again. Unlikely I know, but…

    Dunno why they need more information about your whereabouts than they need to route calls to you. Shouldn’t it always be a configurable option?

  4. @Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo:
    Actually that was in last week’s news. It came up on Nightly News on the NBC stations. In fact there are indeed instructions on how to disable it for all of the most popular phones, iPhone and the droids. But sadly most people just click through the agreements figuring that it won’t matter to them what happens.

    This is surprising to some people such as myself who remember the original Mac ads which promote the fellow as anti-Big Brother.

    I am more concerned with people who do not secure properly their WIFI services.

  5. I use Macs but must admit that there is more than a kernel of truth to the comparison of Apple today with the “nameless” company they attacked in their original, famous ad. Of course it has to do with the position they find themselves in today as opposed to when they were the underdog.

    We all need to remember that data, once created, is going to be used. There is simply too much incentive not too. The cellphone industry is certainly not the only place personal data is being utilized.

  6. Correction….

    with many Clueless Fanboi Android users chiming in saying, “Android doesn’t do that”.

    Anyone that has known ANYTHING about cellphones knows that not only did android do that but most other Location services smartphones have done that. Blackberry, Nokia… THEY ALL DO IT.

  7. All modern phones do, in fact, track you, or give others the option to track you, today. It is a matter of federal law, so as to allow for proper criminal investigation.

    Your phones aren’t private. Get over it.

  8. @BobSmith

    I don’t know about the USA, but in the UK you can buy a phone for less than £5 cash money and top it up with cash too which, assuming you’re not stupid, is an anonymous phone.

    Few people have much of a problem with TFOLAO knowing these details, but a bunch of crazed marketeers? Include me out.

  9. So basically we should all just put up with these electronic snitches in our pockets to allow “proper criminal investigation”? What else should we do to make law enforcement easier? Have cameras everywhere to monitor us? Oh wait already we have that. Cars that keep track of everything we do? Wait, we have that too. Computers that record everything we do down to the keystroke? Yep that’s been here ever since Microsoft sold us out. The new rule is that every new fun, useful or cool device must have a snitch built into it so big brother can watch over us.

  10. Yes Bacchus, I use Mobile broadband here in the Uk so also surf the web fully anonymously! (my name is not really Alan either).

    Btw, Spy vs Spy – Quality game. Long live the C64!

  11. @”alan” :)

    It saddens me that a hell of a lot of effort goes into staying anonymous in order to stay off all the marketing radars, rather than TFOLAO. I suppose it’s because TFOLAO basically are looking for reasons to ignore you, whereas the marketing community just want you to live a terrifyingly “fulfilled” life through the gift of consumerism.

    Wow – A possible community of interest between us and the Filth? Time to lie down.

    Oddly enough, My name really is Bacchus, and I am god of wine, ritual madness, and ecstasy. Least that’s what my mum says…

  12. From the linked site:

    “Update: Let’s be clear here (because apparently I wasn’t): We’re talking about two completely separate issues when it comes to your phone and location data. The first issue is the location data collected by your phone and transmitted to Apple, Google or Microsoft about nearby cell towers, Wi-Fi hotspot and potentially GPS coordinates. Every company is basically on the same page here: The location services are opt-in and your data is anonymized. The second, totally different issue is the location data your phone is storing locally on the phone itself. That’s where Apple’s on the wrong page.”

    So yes, Apple is still worse.

  13. In all fairness I’m pretty disappointed that this article fails to touch on one very important detail – Android *asks you* if you want to allow anonymous location tracking when you first set up a new phone, with a big checkbox you can easily uncheck if you don’t want them to. Nothing hidden, nothing sinister. If you change your mind you can change it in the system settings. Apple doesn’t ask, and doesn’t allow you to opt out. *THAT* was what I thought was uncool.


    FUD FUD FUD all I see is FUD.

    Get it right please. Firstly, the article above refers to Android as a company? (“Both companies also monitor…”)
    Then goes on to say that the data is anonymised.
    Hold on. This data (from the iPhone) is on MY phone. It doesn’t matter HOW much you anonymise the data on my phone, unless you give me someone else’s phone, you can track ME.

    This is a really bad rehash of the original article. Which isn’t bad.

    Then a lot of people are ranting and raving about how you will be tracked anyway. That’s true, you will be tracked by the cell towers and the service provider. HOWEVER that data is not stored on your phone. Unless you’ve got an iPhone.

    OK so Android stores the 50 most recent cell towers. Each cell can cover approx 30km radius. In cities you’re probably down to a few hundred metres, but NOTHING like the triangulated results Apple are storing on the iPhone.

  15. @Max:

    Even if you’re given someone else’s phone, assuming it’s an iPhone, you can’t restore your details to it because that re-installs the MSL database with your past movements in it.

    How creepy is that?

  16. @Max

    I think the article assumes that you know Android is made by Google, and thus ‘both companies’ makes sense, even if its context placement is poor.

    Also, you clearly haven’t see this if you think that your location isn’t actually being triangulated and stored on your Android phone:


    It is stored on your phone, just as it is on the iPhone. While the iPhone stores a complete history on your phone as well as your computer, the Android only stores it on your phone. Aside from someone getting access to your PC, both phones can be compromised with a simple jailbreak procedure and the appropriate file can be extracted.

    Regardless, your location data is being transmitted to Google several times an hour if the Gizmodo infographic is to be believed. If you think Google is purging your data once it is received, you are kidding yourself.

    Both companies claim that you can choose to opt out of tracking, and while I can verify this on my Android handset, I don’t know if this is true on the iPhone. That aside, the only significant difference is the availability of the data. I far trust my home computer to be protected from attackers than I do my cell phone, so I really wouldn’t care if my complete history was copied to my PC.

  17. I can guarantee you my database is empty because my wireless network GPS. A good number of free apps request this information and I have no inclination to give it to them.

    That said, the two instances are so f***ing different, it’s not even funny.

    – Limited to ~50 locations, resets when uploaded.
    – You must have root access to view the logs because it’s for Google’s aGPS / wifi.
    – Every time you enable wireless (a)GPS, this occurs: http://socialtimes.com/files/2011/04/AndroidLocationConsent-r41.png

    – Never resets (logged since they started)
    – Any app can access this database, so any app can upload this content and invade your privacy.
    – Find where you agree to this, and I’ll give you a pat on the back.

    Google writes Android, but isn’t in control of it’s uses. For example, Verizon has replaced Google maps, etc, with Bing / MS services, and as such, may not have this GPS database.

    As for Giz’s info, all of Giz’s pages have this “intro” video that mentions a specific fruit about 7 times in the first 15 seconds of the video. I don’t think you’ll find a balanced opinion there.

  18. @jon:

    So you’d be cool with them randomly activating your camera and mic and sending it to the mothership? (They’ll drop this in the EULA, so you’ll have agreed to it)

    Where does the line stop?

    For me, I demand honesty from my tech companies, as I have a TON of personal information on my device. There’s nothing embarrassing there or anything, I just don’t like it. It’s my information, and I will choose to give it up if the service requires it, or I feel I can trust the company to be responsible for it.

    I can’t trust companies who don’t put obvious privacy concerns up front.

  19. Heh, I use Google Latitude, I could give two shits about Google storing my location. They can do that just from my browser.

    Also at all the people talking about rooting your android device, don’t click that check box when you initially set up your phone, you know, the one that asks permission for Google to track your location.

  20. i carry an iphone.
    It is not jail broken.
    If someone put trakking software like antidroidtheft, would it show up somewhere??
    I have 2 apps I installed, weather, & poynt.
    Since this I took the sim out, turned off wifi and have always keep “services” turned off.
    It’s in airplane mode right now.
    But it’s still tower trakking me right???

  21. The big difference here is that Android’s “tracking” is completely opt in, it’s the very first thing you are asked when you set up your phone… If you opt out, there is no data collection, tracking or transmitting done by Android itself whatsoever… Period.

    Apple’s tracking is NOT opt in, you cannot simply turn it off, hell people didn’t even know it was doing it until recently… And logging all your movements since you’ve been using iOS 4 to both your phone AND your backups on iTunes is ridiculous…

    The only reason people are pointing to Android now is because of those douchebag Apple fanboys at Gizmodo… They published false information regardless of how many times people said otherwise, and those who said otherwise got banned from commenting… They fabricate their own “news” and release it as fact, which it is obviously not.

    Plain and simple, Gizmodo is not a trustworthy tech blog, have you even read their so called articles lately?

  22. TLDR?

    From what I’ve read, iPhone keeps this data forever, though it is inaccurate.

    Android keeps it for just a couple of days.

    Location data is probably still sent to Apple and Google (they claim its for AGPS, etc). It is already shared with your mobile phone operator for use by police and emergency services.

    Apple admit they share this with partners.

  23. There are several programs used by cryptofascists to subvert the US Constitution.

    One of them is InfraGuard.


    The government promised preferential treatment to corporate officers and their families if they agreed to spy on employees and customers without court orders.

    If you’ve seen the contracts, they promise early warning, preferential evacuation, immunity from prosecution and other above the law treatment.

    People who did not immediately roll over have had roomers ruin their careers, false charges filed against them and even been found dead.

  24. What happens when spyware is repurposed to look for the presence of this file in unencrypted iOS backups? I don’t care WHAT Apple is eventually going to do with the data once they start using it (and they *will* start using it one day, unless the outcry is great enough to force them to stop). They’re probably just going to use it to junk up the OS with location-specific advertising or something equally harmless-but-annoying. I worry more about what happens when the data is stolen by a third party.

    I’m not worried about myself, either — I can take precautions to prevent network intrusion and I can implement egress filtering on my home network to assure that the data doesn’t leave my house (through my networking infrastructure) unless I specifically authorize it to do so. But maybe 10% of the people reading these words have no idea what any of that means. On a non-technical website, that percentage probably refers to the number of people that DO understand. Apple’s “let them eat cake” attitude DEMANDS a revolution, or at the very least, a demonstration…


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