Google is using location data collected from Android smartphones to improve search and Web services such as Google Maps. The data is "anonymized," making it hard to trace users.
acknowledged it uses location data gathered from smartphones based on its
Android mobile operating system to bolster its mobile search and Google Maps
Google only collects this data and uses it once users explicitly opt in to allow
Google to use location-oriented information collected via Android handsets, the
company said. Moreover, Google said the data is not linked to specific users.
For those who
already use Android handsets, Google's disclosure is more of a reaffirmation
than a revelation.
But it's a
necessary reaffirmation in the wake of a privacy furor ignited by U.S. Rep.
Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), who April 21 sent letters
to Apple CEO Steve Jobs asking for
clarification on reports that the iPhone and 3G-enabled iPad running iOS 4 have
been saving location data to a hidden database file.
Allan, one of the researchers who discovered this consolidated.db file, wrote
April 20 on the O'Reilly Radar
blog that location data is being
saved to the file and is regularly backed up when the device is synced to the
The data saved
in consolidated.db contains cell-tower triangulation information and names of
WiFi access points, not actual GPS data from the phone.
Apple, which responded
to a similar line of location data
privacy questioning from Markey and U.S. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) last
June, has yet to respond to the latest discovery.
year's inquiry, Apple said its iPhone, iPad and Mac computers collect location
information, but do so anonymously in batches and encrypt it before sending the
data over a WiFi connection from the devices to Apple's servers every 12 hours.
the subject of congressional scrutiny for the use of location data in Android,
the security concerns and conversation naturally pivoted to Google when a
security analyst found that Android phones collect location data every few
seconds and send it to Google several times an hour.
When users set
up their Android smartphone, they are often prompted do a number of things,
including linking their Google Account to the phone and allowing Google to
share their location data with the company.
Google Account has the benefit of letting users sync data stored and generated
in their Gmail account between their desktop and smartphone. Sharing location
data lets Google refine mobile Google.com search results and mobile Google Maps
results for users based on their location.
For example, a
user who lives in New York City and searches for French restaurants from their
HTC Thunderbolt smartphone should see restaurants in the Manhattan area. Google
is taking into account the user's location data to serve those results.
This info is
only available once users opt in, and a Google spokesperson told eWEEK:
"We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and
use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android
see a screenshot of Google's Android location-sharing opt-in prompt on AllThingsDigital
The boxes are
checked by default, and users must uncheck them to prevent Google from
gathering location data tied to that particular phone. Apps and services such
as search and Google Maps will still work though their relevancy may be blunted
by the lack of location data to use.
Note that data
collection continues even when applications are not in use, allowing Google's
servers to persistently stay atop of users' whereabouts. This helps Google
respond quickly when applications that do rely on location data are leveraged.
Google promised that location data sent back to Google location servers is "anonymized"
and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.
is striving to be forthcoming with the way it collects and consumes user data,
this may not be enough to placate privacy-possessed politicians already wary of
transgressions, such as the search engine's Google Buzz and Street View privacy