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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