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Australia probes Google for data harvesting from phones

Sheetal Sukhija - Tuesday 15th May, 2018

CANBERRA, Australia - Following complaints, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has announced an investigation into Google, over allegations that the tech giant harvests huge amounts of data from Android phone.

According the U.S. computer and software corporation Oracle, Google could be harvesting a gigabyte of data from devices each month.

The search engine giant is alleged by Oracle, to be harvesting the personal data of over 10 million Australian android users.

Further, reports noted that the ACCC launched an investigation since it was also alerted to the allegations as part of its digital platforms inquiry.

ACCC is also probing to find the kind of information that is being harvested as it is believed to include detailed location information.

According to a report in The Australian, Oracle had made a presentation to the ACCC, which is holding an inquiry into digital platforms. 

The inquiry was reportedly prompted by the concerns of Australian media companies about the impact that Google and Facebook are having on the advertising market.

Oracle’s presentation to the ACCC reportedly included information that stated Android devices send detailed information on searches and what is being viewed. 

It noted that they can also send precise locations even if location services are turned off, and they do not have a Sim card or apps installed.

It was also revealed that Google has mapped IP addresses, wifi connection points and mobile towers, which allow it to know where a device is connecting or attempting to connect without using the phone’s location service.

David Vaile, the chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation said that the company initially did this as part of its Street View surveying but it is now kept up-to-date by the huge amount of data that Android device users are routinely sending back.

According to reports, Android phones also include barometric devices that can use air pressure to calculate where a person is located in a multistorey building.

Vaile has stated that users had to realise that Google and Facebook were in the commercial surveillance business and the heart of their business model was selling services for advertising purposes.
He said, “They are both extremely good at manipulating the law and they use those legalities. Their initial approach is to ignore any potential breaches of privacy and, as we have now seen, when people notice, their approach is to ask for forgiveness.”

Vaile added that Google had made it clear that it saw its future in artificial intelligence.

He said, “Google has self-evolving machine-learning algorithms that use this data being sent from Android devices. They let them loose on the data and see what they come up with. Yes, they want to improve their services but on a competitive basis they want to consolidate their leadership in AI.”

Vaile added that while Google had slowly “improved in its approach to protecting customer rights, it was still a mosaic – and third-party apps and devices could also be capturing large amounts of data from Android devices.”

In its defense, Google has argued that the tracking of data is done with the permission of phone users but there is a question over whether there is valid consent.

The company also cited that the Google privacy policy has a part which reads, “Data we process when you use Google.”

This part of the privacy policy reads, “When you search for a restaurant or watch a video on You Tube, for example, we process information about that activity – including information like the video you watched, device IDs, IP addresses, cookie data and location.”

However, this does not explicitly refer to Android devices, just Google services.

The policy also reads, “When you use Google services we may collect and process information about your actual location.”

Rod Sims, ACCC chairman has confirmed that the regulator had been given a presentation by Oracle and would look into Google’s practices as part of its inquiry into digital platforms.

Sims noted, “The ACCC met with Oracle and is considering information it has provided about Google services. We are exploring how much consumers know about the use of location data and are working closely with the privacy commissioner.”

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