Google Play has a keen interest in tracking Android users as they go about their day, and there’s little that can be done to stop it.
Security researcher Mustafa Al-Bassam found that out the hard way.
Upon entering a McDonald’s, the researcher “almost had a heart attack” when his Android phone prompted him to download the fast-food chain’s mobile app.
Al-Bassam checked his phone and discovered that with his operating system, which is running one of the newer Android builds, it’s almost impossible to prevent Google Maps from collecting your location.
Fine. He decided to uninstall Google Maps. But that’s when he came across the larger issue threatening Android users’ privacy:
Even if you uninstall Google Maps, Google Play's background service is tracking your location 24/7. pic.twitter.com/j8lPJtnyu9
— Mustafa Al-Bassam (@musalbas) September 12, 2016
Let that sink in for a second.
Google Play services is capable of constantly tracking Android users’ movements because it uses features like Nearby to create “location awareness.”
As Google explains in a blog post:
“One of the unique features of mobile applications is location awareness. Mobile users take their devices with them everywhere, and adding location awareness to your app offers users a more contextual experience. The location APIs available in Google Play services facilitate adding location awareness to your app with automated location tracking, geofencing, and activity recognition.”
In other words, Google Play’s APIs are responsible for this continuous tracking, not Android’s location APIs.
That means if a mobile user with one of the newest Android builds tries to switch off location for Google Play (via Apps > Google Play Store > Permissions), they’ll get a pop-up window warning them that turning location off for Google Play will disable that feature on every single app installed on their device.
Okay… so what if you uninstall Google Play and/or Google Maps?
Well, it depends on what you have installed on your phone. You won’t be tracked, but you’ll have to manually update each of your apps, some of which might not even work anymore without an active installation of Google Play services.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
So what’s the best course of action here?
You can either risk it and uninstall Google Play and Google Maps, or several times throughout the day, you can live with turning off location to Google Play Services and all of the apps installed on your phone.
Neither choice is all that appealing, but if you go with the second option, at least you can curse out Google multiple times a day for the continued inconvenience and for mishandling your privacy.
That or switch to an iPhone. Now.
“We identified a bug affecting a small number of users in a recent release of the Google Play. For users in the error state, the Google Play app was unable to obtain GPS, causing it to make frequent unsuccessful requests and use battery. We will be rolling out a fix in the next few days.”
In addition, a Google spokesperson has sent us the following statement:
“We’ve long provided users with tools to control how their location information is shared with Google and other apps or services on their Android devices. Android users can choose to switch their device’s Location off at any time via the Android settings menu. Beginning with Android 6.0, we also provide users with the ability to disable a specific application’s permission to obtain location, including Google Maps and Google Play (see article for more).”