Google’s Android Phones Also Collecting User Location Data

Apple isn't the only company collecting data off their smartphones.

It’s not just the iPhone that’s keeping track of where you go, there’s a similar feature on phones running Google’s Android OS:

Apple Inc.’s iPhones and Google Inc.’s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data.

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

(…)

In the case of Google, according to new research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, an HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour. It also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier.

Google declined to comment on the findings.

Until last year, Google was collecting similar Wi-Fi data with its fleet of StreetView cars that map and photograph streets world-wide. The company shut down its StreetView Wi-Fi collection last year after it inadvertently collected e-mail addresses, passwords and other personal information from Wi-Fi networks. The data that Mr. Kamkar observed being transmitted on Android phones didn’t include such personal information.

In Google’s case, it seems that they may be using the phone data to supplement other products that they offer:

Google also has said it uses some of the data to build accurate traffic maps. A cellphone’s location data can provide details about, for instance, how fast traffic is moving along a stretch of highway.

Google previously has said that the Wi-Fi data it collects is anonymous and that it deletes the start and end points of every trip that it uses in its traffic maps. However, the data, provided to the Journal exclusively by Mr. Kamkar, contained a unique identifier tied to an individual’s phone

There are already calls from Congressman for hearings, but, honestly, my concern isn’t so much with the data collection as it is with the possibility that the government itself may start accessing that data. Because, face it, corporations want personal data mostly so they can sell us stuff, governments want it so they can control and track us. I don’t mind the first, I do mind the second. So the primary concern with regard to Apple and Google should be whether they’re keeping the data they collect private, both from potential identity thieves, and from the state.
FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    Anyone surprised by this is not really familiar with the companies and technology involved.

    Also, privacy is dead, if you want to take advantage of today’s communication technologies.

  2. JKB says:

    Well, I guess the real test will be can the data be erased by the user and will they permit an app for that? If the answer is no to either, then that is something to consider.

  3. LaurenceB says:

    It doesn’t seem like the most relevant question is actually answered in this article:

    Is the unique phone ID archived in a persistent database, or is it just transmitted?

    There is no privacy issue at all if the unique phone ID is simply used to correlate locations from the same phone (for example), but then discarded.

  4. mantis says:

    Is the unique phone ID archived in a persistent database, or is it just transmitted?

    There is no privacy issue at all if the unique phone ID is simply used to correlate locations from the same phone (for example), but then discarded.

    Delete useful data? I seriously doubt Google or Apple would do that.

  5. Trumwill says:

    An advantage to my continued use of the late, great, Windows Mobile perhaps.

  6. Wayne says:

    Without the GPS locater on, I doubt if they get all that accurate location. My phone location is often off by a few miles in many areas without the GPS on. Admittedly it still gives approximate location though.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    I was feeling pretty smug about my phone OS choice yesterday. 🙁

  8. hey norm says:

    once you institutionalize the torture of people then all bets are off. this is just another domino. yawn.

  9. Franklin says:

    So the primary concern with regard to Apple and Google should be whether they’re keeping the data they collect private, both from potential identity thieves, and from the state.

    If it’s available somewhere, the government will first subpoena, and then later on just pass a law with the renewal of the Patriot Act that skips all 4th amendment protections.

  10. mantis says:

    once you institutionalize the torture of people then all bets are off. this is just another domino. yawn.

    Oh please. More than a little off the mark there, norm.

  11. john personna says:

    In 1999, Stephen Manes quoted Sun CEO McNealy as saying, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

    There was an uproar (perhaps limited to the tech community). I think we wanted to believe that it wasn’t (yet) true.

    But … talk about a quote that was maybe just, as the comedians say … too soon.

  12. mantis says:

    I was feeling pretty smug about my phone OS choice yesterday. 🙁

    That’s what my wife said when she heard they hadn’t found the data collection in Android (yet). I asked her, “What, you don’t think Google is collecting the same types of data? They’re Google! That’s what they do.”

    If you don’t want companies tracking what you do, don’t carry around a communication device with satellite geolocation capabilities. In fact, stay away from the internet entirely.

  13. Socrates says:

    “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

    Get over it?

    What a di*k.

    (Actually, “get over it” is pretty much the response from the Apple user community too. Which is expected. But chilling, all the same.)

  14. john personna says:

    At the time McNealy was selling the most popular big servers and internet computers, and so he knew what his customers were doing. He might have been a dick to say it, but in a way he’d be more of one to keep quiet.

    I’m sure it’s much worse now than it was in 1999.

  15. Moosebreath says:

    “honestly, my concern isn’t so much with the data collection as it is with the possibility that the government itself may start accessing that data. Because, face it, corporations want personal data mostly so they can sell us stuff, governments want it so they can control and track us. I don’t mind the first, I do mind the second.”

    No surprise here. To most libertarians, the concept of being left alone only applies from persons who are there to do the things we choose to have them do and who they have the ability to hire and fire through elections, not to people who want to persuade people into spending money on their priorities, not ours, and who we have no substantial means of changing their conduct (and don’t give me the bull of changing providers — it is likely all providers either already do it or will shortly).

  16. ratufa says:

    my concern isn’t so much with the data collection as it is with the possibility that the government itself may start accessing that data.

    That horse left the barn a long time ago. If the data is there, you should assume that the government can access it if it feels the need to do so. Unless you think that Google or Apple will see it in their interests to fight the government if they receive a national security letter.

    What’s more, the cell phone location data that phone companies routinely keep has been available to law enforcement for a while:

    http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/18/the-snitch-in-your-pocket.html

    and the government can seize and search your electronic devices (including your phone) at the border:

    http://www.federalcriminaldefenseblog.com/2011/04/articles/searches-seizures/ninth-circuit-upholds-border-searches-of-electronic-devices-hundreds-of-miles-from-border/

  17. Don’t be evil. Unless there’s money to be made.

  18. george says:

    In the end, so long as you’re not forced to carry something that can track you, its kind of a non-issue … if you don’t like being tracked, don’t use the product. [Disclosure: smugness comes from not using any such products myself].

  19. PJ says:

    The difference here is that Apple is keeping a log on the iPhone that won’t be truncated and will be transfered to your backup.

    This means that a spouse, parent, girlfriend, boyfriend, employer, cop, or a border agent could get access to it, all who would be able to tie the information to a certain person.

    The problem with the same information ending up in Google or Apple’s vast databases is a different one.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    I think it’s time to admit — and I’ve come to it very reluctantly — that old notions of privacy are done for. We’re going back to still older notions of privacy, the rather minimal version that predominated in ancient village life.

    For most of human history a man’s entire life was an open book within the community or tribe or village. With urbanization and with the growth of a middle class (individuals with homes made of multiple rooms, a separation between work and home,) we developed a different view of privacy that bordered on anonymity.

    And now we’re reverting to an earlier state.

  21. rodney dill says:

    I for one welcome our predatory marketing overlords

  22. mpw280 says:

    It gets especially fun when cops in Michigan carry electronic interrogators than raid your phones data and load it into their machines. How they come to the conclusion that raiding your phone is legal is a huge stretch, but they believe they have the right to any data on your phone because they want it. Now how long is it before they start writing tickets based on the data in your cars computer? mpw

  23. Dave says:

    …governments want it so they can control and track us

    What, exactly, would the government do with this information?

  24. mpw280 says:

    dave, ever hear of mileage taxing? That is just one quick example. Child porn, speeding, curfew, dui, how much can they do, who knows. Give them time and they will find a use, if only to raise revenue. mpw

  25. Dave says:

    dave, ever hear of mileage taxing? That is just one quick example. Child porn, speeding, curfew, dui, how much can they do, who knows. Give them time and they will find a use, if only to raise revenue. mpw

    Mileage taxing wouldn’t be run off of a phone tracking device. Unless the government voted to pass a tax on walking.

    And sorry, but if the government decides to crack down on my child porn and DUI habits that’s ok with me.

  26. john personna says:

    For most of human history a man’s entire life was an open book within the community or tribe or village. With urbanization and with the growth of a middle class (individuals with homes made of multiple rooms, a separation between work and home,) we developed a different view of privacy that bordered on anonymity.

    And now we’re reverting to an earlier state.

    This is a popular story arc, and I think I’ve told it myself. But it could be a little worse. It would take a really dedicated village of gossips to communicate our grocery receipts as efficiently as the computers.

  27. michael reynolds says:

    JP:

    Some ground millet and a rat. Back in the day everyone knew exactly what everyone else was eating.

    But yeah, this is going to be extremely detailed data. Where you are, where you were, what you bought, what you saw, heard and smelled.

  28. With all of the new technology that keeps coming out, we are going to have tons of security and privacy issues down the road.