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Android phones still track you when location services are off

Even phones that have been reset to their factory settings can tell Google where you are.

The Pixel 2 XL knows how to find you.
James Martin/CNET

Google has been collecting Android phones' locations even when location services are turned off, an investigation has revealed.

Online publication Quartz observed Android phones collecting the addresses of nearby mobile phone masts and sending them back to Google. The details were collected even when location services were turned off on the phones, no apps had been installed and there was no SIM card in the phone.

"The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals' locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy," wrote Quartz reporter Keith Collins.

Google confirmed that it was collecting the information, which it refers to as Cell ID codes, but said it was immediately discarded, and that it no longer collects the location information. 

"In January of this year, we began looking into using Cell ID codes as an additional signal to further improve the speed and performance of message delivery. However, we never incorporated Cell ID into our network sync system, so that data was immediately discarded, and we updated it to no longer request Cell ID," a Google spokesman said in a statement.

It's no secret that Google keeps track of your phone's location -- many of the apps we use regularly wouldn't work as well without location services turned on. If you're concerned about your privacy, you can tell your Android phone to remove your location history from your Google Maps Timeline and stop keeping screenshots of your old searches.

CNET's Laura Hautala contributed to this report.