Google Got Caught Secretly Recording Android Users’ Location Data. But Who Blew the Whistle?

November 22, 2017, 10:57 AM UTC

Google has been secretly recording Android users’ location information even if they had turned off location services on their phones, a new report has revealed. And, in a curious twist to the tale, a leading security researcher has claimed that Google nemesis Oracle was behind the exposé.

Quartz reported on Tuesday that, since the start of the year, Android phones have been registering and transmitting to Google information about nearby cell towers, without letting users know.

Google (GOOGL) confirmed that it was doing this, and said it would stop. The company said it had collected the information to manage messages and push notifications, but it had never used the information nor stored it.

The data collection took place even if the user had not put a SIM card into their phone, the report stated, explaining that devices could nonetheless collect cell tower data if they were connected to a Wi-Fi network—presumably due to Google knowing the location of the Wi-Fi hotspot.

Google sells location data to advertisers, so they can target Android users with contextually relevant ads. However, Google’s spokesperson told Quartz that this location-data-harvesting system was separate from that one, being focused on messaging services.

This is a very bad look for Google, which admitted seven years ago that its Street View mapping-data cars were also registering details of people’s Wi-Fi networks as they drove around. If people turn off location services, they would rightly expect that Google wouldn’t be tracking their location—which, given enough cell tower information, is entirely possible.

All of which would make the practice’s exposure very good news for a Google competitor. According to a tweet from Ashkan Soltani, a respected security researcher and the former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission (and advisor to the White House), that competitor was Oracle (ORCL).

Soltani claimed Oracle had been trying for more than five months to get someone to cover the story.

Oracle and Google have a long and fractious history, with the dominant thread being Oracle’s long-running suit against Google over the use of certain Oracle-owned code in Android (long story short: Google won, with courts repeatedly saying its inclusion of the code was “fair use”). The companies also compete in the cloud services market and Oracle has funded several anti-Google pressure groups.

Fortune has asked Oracle whether it was behind the news of Google’s surreptitious data-slurping, and will update this story as and when a response arrives.

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