Google Sued for Surreptitious Android Location Tracking

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

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Google has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit related to stealth location tracking and data collection by mobile phones running the Android operating system.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Michigan, seeks fifty million in damages for the plaintiffs as well as class action status for other users of the Android devices nationally.

The lawsuit alleges privacy violations for the collection of location data, deceptive business practices for failing to notify customers, and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for harvesting the data from individual devices.

The Android devices record geolocation information derived from triangulating the location of a device using the signals from the closest cell phone transmission towers and Wi-Fi access points, and store the information on the device for retrieval.

The Google lawsuit states:

All Android Operating System phones log, record and store users' locations based on latitude and longitude alongside a timestamp and unique device ID attached to each specific phone. The phones store this information in a file located on the phone. Google intentionally began recording this information with the release of its Android operating system. Google uses cell-tower triangulation and/or alternatively, Google may use global positioning system (GPS) data to obtain a users location.

Cellular phones using Google's Android Operating System obtain tracking information every few seconds and download the user location data and unique device ID attached to each specific phone to Google computers on a regular basis several times every hour. The data is unencrypted while being transmitted and while on the mobile devices.

Users of cellular phones using Google's Android Operating System, including Plaintiffs, were unaware of Google's extensive tracking of their locations and did not knowingly consent to such tracking.

Google's Terms of Service do not disclose its comprehensive tracking of users nor its use of a unique device ID attached to each specific phone. Google only discloses that it is seeking permission to obtain location information from its Android Operating System cell phone users. Plaintiffs and other users did not provide any sort of informed consent to the extensive tracking at issue in this case.

Google collects the location information covertly, surreptitiously and i n violations of law.

A similar lawsuit was filed against Apple in April over a hidden iOS file that documents the location of products running the operating system. The plaintiffs in the Apple case are seeking a court order to bar further collection of the location data.

One major difference between the Google and Apple tracking is that the Android file is limited to the most recent 200 Wi-Fi access points and 50 cell towers, while the iOS file appears to contain full location histories.

Another difference that may not bode well for Apple is the revelation that the company filed for a patent in 2009 on the geolocation tracking feature which detailed plans to utilize the data in commercial applications.

The discovery of the patent application confirmed suspicions that Apple was quite aware of the storage of geolocation tracking data, that it was not merely a database of Wi-Fi locations, and the building of location histories on their customers was not due to a software glitch as the company had previously suggested.

Microsoft also released a statement in April regarding the company's practice of collecting geolocation tracking information from mobile devices, but states that the information is not device specific and does not compromise user privacy.

Microsoft insists that users can prevent the collection of the location data by disabling the Location Services feature. Apple is expected to update the iOS to allow users the same option.

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