Tech giant Google, Inc., could be headed for a fresh tangle with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after two senators sent a letter to the commission last week urging it to investigate alleged infringements of user privacy and excessive, obscure data collection.
Since 2009, Google has promoted continuous tracking of user location within several of its products through a service now called Location History. When a user enables Location History, they not only provide Google with periodic data from one device, they deepen the volume and invasiveness of collection across devices and on a continuous basis. While Google describes the tracking as an opt-in feature, our own investigation found that the consent process frequently mischaracterizes the service and degrades the functionality of products in order to push users into providing permission. This conflicts with recent industry-wide changes to improve privacy on smartphones, particularly where Google forces users on Apple devices to enable more permissive settings. Moreover, Google does not offer full and accessible information to consumers on the use of their data, including in advertising and commercial analytics services. These factors raise serious questions about whether users are able to provide informed consent.
Translated into English, that means that if you use Google apps, even on an iPhone—the use of which is generally regarded as a way of better protecting user privacy than use of a competitor Android phone—Google has likely been stealthily collecting your information, coercing you into letting them do it without it being clear what they are doing, and that you have not given what would be considered “informed consent” for legal purposes. Moreover, you are the product—not Google’s apps, or ads, Gmail or YouTube.
Lest people jump to the conclusion that it’s only government-intervention-happy liberals who are taking Google on over this, the rumor in Washington, D.C., is that Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley are also none too happy about Google’s data collection and see legal issues with it. However, for the time being, Markey and Blumenthal have taken the lead.
Conservatives have been growing increasingly concerned about Google’s behavior, in terms of political alignment, alleged speech censorship and data collection for some time. A Quartz piece published earlier this year indicated that data collection by Google was vastly greater and less transparent than previously thought.
One concern conservatives have is that allegedly, Google location tracking is feeding information back to the Democratic-aligned company that indicates when a Google user visits a psychiatrist or a house of worship.
Some Republicans monitoring Google’s location data collection speculate that the company could swiftly move to tracking visits to gun shops, if that data is not already being collected.
Given closeness between Democratic officials and Google, that presents risks of very sensitive information leaking to a future Democratic administration that could be used to target conservatives.
The same could occur under any administration were Google compelled to share such data with the government, or were it to decide to do so of its own accord.
Irrespective of these hypotheticals, however, the FTC’s purview is consumer protection and they’ve hammered Google for privacy infringements in somewhat similar circumstances before, notably in the Safarigate affair.
It’s reasonable to expect the FTC to act on Markey and Blumenthal’s request and delve into what is going on here. In the course of doing so, a lot of additional dirt about Google’s practices may come to light.
In the meantime, if you’re concerned about your online privacy, Erick has previously urged readers to use search engine duckduckgo.com. And while iPhones apparently are not blocking as much of Google’s data collection as some users may have thought, the likelihood is that they still collect much less than Android phones. If you’re a privacy-minded consumer, make your service and product choices wisely.