At a time of increased scrutiny of companies that collect masses of user data, two US senators are calling on federal regulators to investigate a Google product called Location History.
Quartz first reported in January about the sly and confusing ways Google cajoles Android users to opt into Location History, and the plethora of data points the company collects when it’s enabled. A letter from US senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey to the chairman of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cites our reporting and urges the agency to investigate “any deceptive acts and practices” associated with the product.
The senators say that Android users who enable the Location History feature “deepen the volume and invasiveness of collection across devices” by Google. They also argue that that despite Google’s characterization of the feature as “opt-in,” their investigation of the service “found that the consent process frequently mischaracterizes the service and degrades the functionality of products in order to push users into providing permission.”
Google relies on the data (as do other advertising-dependent companies) to segment users into specific cohorts of people whom advertisers will pay to reach. Any restrictions on the types of data Google can collect or the way in which that data can be utilized could be consequential to its business.
Are Android users providing “informed consent”?
At issue is whether or not Google users are able to provide “informed consent” when they opt into the service. “Most consumers do not understand the level, granularity, and reach of Google’s data collection,” Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, argue in their May 11 letter to FTC chairman Joseph Simons. We’ve reached out to Google for a comment.
Enclosed with the senators’ letter was previous correspondence conducted with Google about a separate privacy flaw reported by Quartz in 2017. In those letters, senator Blumenthal and the company discussed how and why the Android operating system was transmitting information about nearby cell towers back to Google’s servers.
That information could have been used by Google to determine the location of the devices even if location-determining features like GPS were disabled in the phone’s settings.