While fans of Android mobile phones may be taking some satisfaction in the current location-tracking controversy surrounding Apple's iPhone, they perhaps might not be aware that their own phones are also tracking their movements. Although users reportedly must opt into the Android feature, Detroit-area residents Julie Brown and Kayla Molaski believe that the average user wouldn't grasp the implications of doing so. To that end, last Wednesday (April 27, 2011) the pair filed a US$50 million class action lawsuit against Android's parent company, Google.
Apple claims that iPhones routinely send the locations of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots into the company, contributing to a database designed to help users triangulate their geographical location more quickly and reliably than would be possible using GPS alone. The data is sent in anonymously, so the company supposedly has no idea which actual phone is in which location.
The phones also regularly receive updates of the database for their area, which they cache for later use. While this unencrypted file supposedly is not a record of that particular device's travels, a recently-discovered 2009 patent application filed by Apple has some people questioning whether or not that actually is the case.
Once the iPhone controversy began, it was revealed that Android phones collect, send and receive the same sort of data, for the same (supposed) reason. The cached file is apparently less extensive than that on the iPhone, and more difficult to access, although experts or skilled hackers could likely still get to it. Android devices send the data more frequently than iPhones (several times an hour) and don't do so as anonymously – a unique ID number is assigned to each phone's data. While that number is essentially random, there are concerns that "deanonymization" techniques could be used to determine the specific phone in question.
Brown and Molaski's lawsuit addresses concerns over the ID numbers, and the allegation that the data is sent to Google unencrypted. It also maintains that even though the collection of location data is an opt-in feature, the average user wouldn't be aware of the possibility that doing so could create a record of where they've been, that could be used against them or sold to third parties.
Besides the $50 million, the lawsuit also states that Google must either stop tracking Android users, or clearly inform them of its intentions in doing so.