Feel like you’re being watched? Probably Google violating privacy rights

More often than not we’re writing positively about Google, but the ‘do no evil’ company has been caught out tracking smartphone locations even if the user has opted out.

An investigation from by Associated Press, and ratified by researchers at Princeton University, found several Google services on Android and iOS devices have been storing location data of users, even if the individual has set privacy settings to remain invisible. As privacy and the right to access personal data increasingly become hot-topics, Google might have stepped on a bit of a PR and legal landmine.

Generally Google is quite upfront about discussing privacy and location enablement. It has faced various fines over the years for data-dodginess and is even facing an European Commission investigation over its alleged suspect coercion of users into opting-in to various services, though this is potentially either an example of extreme negligence, or illegally misleading the consumer. Neither explanation is something Google execs would want to be associated with.

One of the issues here is the complexity of getting off the grid. Although turning location tracking off stops Google from adding location data to your accounts timeline, leaving ‘Web & App Activity’ on allows Google to collect other location markers.

We mentioned before this is either negligence or illegal activity, but perhaps this is just another example of an internet giant taking advantage of the fact not everyone is a lawyer. The small print is often the best friend of Silicon Valley. Few would know about this little trick from the Googlers which allows them to appear like the data privacy hero, while simply sneaking in through the slight ajar window in your kitchen.

“When Google builds a control into Android and then does not honour it, there is a strong potential for abuse,” said Jesse Victors, Software Security Consultant at Synopsys.

“It is sometimes extremely important to keep one’s location history private; such as visiting a domestic violence shelter, for example. Other times you may simply wish to opt out of data collection. It’s disingenuous and misleading to have a toggle switch that does not completely work. This, and other examples before it, are one of the reasons why my phone runs LineageOS, a Google-free fork of Android.”

On the company support page, Google states users can switch off location services for any of its services at any time, though this would obviously impact the performance of some. The Maps application for example cannot function without it, and does track user movements by the minute once switched on. With such opportunity for abuse, Google introduced pause features for some of its apps, allowing the user to become invisible for a undefined period of time.

The relationship with the user and the concept of trust is critical to Google. Revenues are generated off creating free services and implementing advertising platforms into the services, though to remain relevant Google needs the consumer data to improve applications. Without constant upgrades and fine-tuning, Google could not maintain the dominant position is enjoys today.

Collecting this data requires trust. The user must trust Google is not mishandling the data it acquires, but also respects the users right to privacy. Without this element of trust between the user and Google, it would not be able to acquire the critically important insight. With this revelation, Google has put a dent in its own credibility and damaged the relationship with the user.

The impact on Google overall will of course be limited. There are too many good stories to drown out the negative and ultimately the user needs Google. Such is the importance of Google’s services to the digital economy, or perhaps it should be worded as a lack of effective enough alternatives, we suspect few users will allow this invasion of privacy to impact their daily routines.

This is not supposed to be any form of validation for the contradictory ‘do no evil’ business, but more a sad truth of today.

Should privacy be treated as a right to protect stringently, or a commodity for users to trade for benefits?

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Streaming approaches half of all music industry revenues

It might not be anywhere as near as data intensive as video, but the growing influence of music streaming is another part of the network congestion question which needs to be factored in.

During the days of yesteryear, queues would form around the corner for the latest release of the next chart topper, but gone are those days. Those of more advanced years might look badly nostalgically about the anticipation of getting their hands on the latest Beatles banger (Ask Scott, Ray or Iain for more details), but now gratification is all about a simple click on the mouse.

Music is an aspect of the digital economy which is rarely discussed from a telco perspective, but it will start to have an impact before too long. Video is of course the big headache when it comes to traffic management and network congestion, but there are so many more moving cogs which collectively will have an impact; that is important to remember about them every now and then.

According to findings from MIDiA Research, music streaming is fuelling growth in the $17.4 billion global music industry, with a 39% year-on-year uplift in revenues to now represent 43% of the total revenues across the industry. An increase in revenues is the most obvious way to measure usage in the industry, but when popular streaming services like Spotify offer ‘all you can eat’ music, revenues do not perhaps tell the entire story.

Looking at the bitrates used by some of the more popular services, Apple Music uses a 256 kbps bitrate, which suggest an hour of music streaming would eat up 115 MB, while other apps use multiple options. Google’s music offering has three categories; the bitrate on low ranges from 96 kbps to 128 kbps, medium is 256 kbps and high is 320 kbps. On low quality you could use between 43 MB and 58 MB in an hour, while on high it would be 144 MB. On Spotify, the default mobile bitrate is 96 kbps and for desktop is 160 kbps, while users have the option of using 320 kbps.

In terms of users, Sportify now has at least 71 million subscribers (as of December 2017) and 157 active users worldwide. Apple has said it has 36 million subscribers, while Google has around 7 million (2017), including its YouTube subscriptions. These are not mind blowing numbers, but growth is continuing to be very healthy.

Over the course of 2017, users in the US spend more than 32 hours a week listening to music, up from 26.6 hours according to Nielsen Music research, with on-demand streaming up 12.5% year-on-year. This might not sound massive but streaming music has been normalised for years. The accelerated growth you usually see at the beginning was a long time ago, though 12.5% is still a significant number to bear in mind. These numbers will have a notable impact on the information highway.

Video is continuing to grow, but less data intensive trends are continuing to play a role in the connected era. Music streaming might not be a game changer when it comes to network congestion, but when you add up all the minor impacts of music, gaming, navigation, messaging etc. the headaches start to become a bit more varied. Always worth noting every now and then.