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It seems digital privacy in the modern age is slowly becoming non-existent. After Facebook's secret news feed manipulation experiment and the US National Security Agency's (NSA) spying on China-based Huawei's networks got global privacy advocates thinking, it is now the turn of Android phones to reveal the name and location history of Wi-Fi networks that your phone was connected to.
According to a recent study conducted by US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that goes by the tagline "Defending your rights in the digital world", Android smartphones (not less than three years old) run a greater risk of transmitting location information when connected to Wi-Fi networks.
The EFF report also states that Android phones could broadcast location history of all the places that users have recently visited, even when the phone is not connected to Wi-Fi and when the screen is "Off".
The root cause for "Wi-Fi location data broadcast" has been traced to a feature called 'Preferred Network Offload (PNO)' that comes as part of Google's legacy Android Honeycomb (Android 3.1) operating system.
Originally, PNO is a functionality that allows tablets and smartphones to initiate and maintain Wi-Fi connections even when your devices are forced to operate in low-power conditions.
The functionality responsible for PNO transmitting Wi-Fi location history has been identified as the open-source code wpa_supplicant.
PNO's primary motive is to conserve your device's battery life by reducing mobile data consumption. Since Wi-Fi is generally known to drain battery less quickly compared to cellular connection, PNO apparently results in keeping the phone running with connectivity, even when battery life threatens to drain out.
However, EFF mentions in its study that PNO could have resulted in broadcasting vital details about all the places that you have been to, like your home, office, tourist attractions, religious and business gatherings.
These details could give data hackers and people resorting to eavesdropping a shot in the arm. Details transmitted by PNO via Wi-Fi could always be accessed by hackers and misused by criminals.
"To our dismay we discovered that many of the modern Android phones we tested leaked the names of the networks stored in their settings (up to a limit of fifteen). And when we looked at these network lists, we realised that they were in fact dangerously precise location histories," states the EFF study report.
As of now, the study states that Android smartphones running Android 3.1 and higher versions run the greatest risk of transmitting Wi-Fi location histories. Nothing is known about Apple's iPhones though.
But, laptops running Windows 7 and Mac OS X (version not clear) result in broadcasting Wi-Fi location history.
Various smartphones such as Motorola Droid 4, Google's Nexus 4 and the HTC One were found to have leaked W-Fi SSID. Click here to check the full list of tested devices.
In summary, it is about time that major technology players give a thought to 'user privacy' and release suitable fixes to solve the latest 'mobile data privacy compromise'.
Navigate to your device's 'Advanced Wi-Fi settings' and switch 'Keep Wi-Fi on during sleep' to 'off'.