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Google faces Android location-tracking lawsuit

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May 3, 2011

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Google, alleging that the company hasn't mad...

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Google, alleging that the company hasn't made users of its Android phones sufficiently aware of the possibility of location-tracking (Photo: Christian Lo)

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.

Source: Wired

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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3 Comments

I expect sooner or later we'll dredge up a couple of opportunist cretins who will sue the US Postal Service for delivering a letter addressed to them.

Eideard
3rd May, 2011 @ 05:13 pm PDT

So you think they're just some lawsuit-happy opportunists, eh? I think that's irrelevant along side the fact that we can be tracked and pursued, either by "legitimate" organizations, or by nefarious people who are talented enough to tag along with the data stream to-from Apple or Google. Frankly, this is making me uncomfortable, and if it takes a lawsuit to force these behemoths into responsible behavior (which is what it always takes to get a corporation to behave responsibly), so be it. Imagine this: Think of all those software designers making all those convenient, useful apps we're so fond of, and then think about all the criminals with the same talent making apps that will allow them to track and rob, or track and kill.

I think I'll dust off "Soylent Green"....

Steve Anderson
4th May, 2011 @ 06:41 pm PDT

And, of course, when we walk into a store that has our info they can have the monitors flash targeted ads directly at us based on our previous visits! How wonderful! Then I'll know what to buy and my tech will never be out of date. Wait... wasn't there a Tom Cruise film where that happened...? Maybe I should just get some friends in Hawaii or some other fun or exotic place, mail my phone to them, and have them send it back. Let Apple & Google think I went on vacation. Maybe send it with the kid on spring break! Yeah, well... maybe not. As the economy worsens (don't kid yourself - it IS!) there will be more of this stuff happening.

KMH
5th May, 2011 @ 07:21 am PDT
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