A damning report by a renowned Computer Scientist has raked up the data privacy debate once again. The 55-page report published by Douglas C. Schmidt, a Vanderbilt University Professor is highly critical of the way Google collects user data and ignores user consent which is the guiding principle of the recently enforced EU GDPR.
Google has outrightly rejected the claim of Dr. Schmidt via an e-mail statement.
“This report is commissioned by a professional DC lobbyist group and written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google,” a Google spokesperson said. “So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information.”
The insinuation here is on the fact that Oracle and Google are currently battling a $9 billion copyright case over the use of Java software used in the Android operating system.
This revelation comes close on the heels of another recent expose by Associated Press where it was stated that many Google services on Android devices were storing your location data even if your privacy settings didn’t allow it to do so.
Has data privacy gone for a toss? Yet again!
Here are a few examples on the current concerns around data privacy that Dr. Schmidt has highlighted in this report:
#1. Collecting personal information
2. Google’s Autofill feature is a big concern area
Lot of repetitive information (name, address, email, phone number, etc.) that we tend to use a lot on the internet gets saved on the user’s local drive through the auto fill feature of the Chrome browser that we consent to. Did you know that if you log into Chrome using your Google Account and end up enabling the sync feature, your auto-filled information will also get stored on Google servers?
#3. Tracking of web browsing
If collecting personal data was not itself a cause of worry, your Android device and the Chrome browser keep sending information to Google servers about your web browsing history as well as mobile app activities. Any web pages you visit get automatically tracked and Chrome has access to your download history, passwords, permission-levels for different websites, cookies and additional data.
The “translate” feature which is enabled by default is also a means for Google to collection information on the languages a person speaks.
#4. Android devices ping Google servers regularly
The report mentions that Android devices notify Google when the device owner accesses any app on their device. In addition, periodic updates are sent to Google servers where your device type information, cellular service provider name, app crash reports and information on all other apps installed and deleted from your apps is available to Google.
#5. Is your location and movement being tracked?
Another major concern as highlighted by this report by Dr. Schmidt is that Chrome browser and Android platform collection user data not just on their location but also on their movement as well.
Google can determine with a fair degree of accuracy on when a user is walking, running, bicycling, or is on a train or driving a car. This is made possible when Android user’s location coordinates are tracked at frequent intervals and the information is correlated with data from onboard sensors like accelerometers. The following is a diagram that was presented in the report to illustrate this point:
Another major concern highlighted in the report is that Android collects data even if Wi-Fi is turned off by the user. The location of the user will still be tracked even if the Wi-Fi is switched off on the Android device or even it has no SIM or the device is on an Airplane Mode. To prevent this, a user must explicitly disable Wi-Fi scanning (something that not everyone is aware of) through a separate action. This aspect was also highlighted in a February 2018 investigative report by Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Is Google Serious about Addressing these Concerns?
Recently, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. had sent a letter to several technology companies including Alphabet (Google’s parent company) questioning how Google collects data.
It is interesting to note here that while Twitter and Facebook were represented by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at the hearing, Google was conspicuous by its absence and chose not to send any top executive to this hearing.
Here’s a video of the Congressional hearing and the opening remarks by Senator Collins where she expresses her outrage at the fact that Google didn’t turn up for this hearing.