Google Leverages Location Data for Local Search, Maps

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.

Google acknowledged it uses location data gathered from smartphones based on its Android mobile operating system to bolster its mobile search and Google Maps services.

However, 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.

Alasdair 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 PC.

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.

For last 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.

Although not 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.

Linking the 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 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 devices."

Readers may 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.

However, Google promised that location data sent back to Google location servers is "anonymized" and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.

While Google 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 gaffes.