Letting Google track your location data on your Android smartphone can have some impressive and interesting results. You get contextual information such as traffic updates and tips on points of interest when you need it, your pictures are geo-tagged, you get weather updates and travel information, and you can handily refer to a fairly accurate log of where you were on any given day. The last one is particularly handy in resolving arguments and figuring out what on earth you’ve done with your time.
There is a flipside to all of that tracking. For one, Google uses that information for much more than to serve you reliably. The company is, after all, in the business of advertising, and uses the information it gathers to tailor ads for you, or collates the data with that of others to offer a general service, as is the case with traffic data on Google Maps. That is, of course, the whole point of Android. The smartphone you buy is relatively more affordable and offer you all of these features because of this. You are simply giving back to the system with your data, and you can’t have everything in your Rs 10,000 smartphone without at least giving something back.
If you’re more concerned about your privacy, maybe Android isn’t for you. It’s part of the reason why the iPhone is more expensive by its very nature – the software isn’t subsidized by advertising. Even on Android, you have the ability to opt out of location sharing if you choose, but that will mean you lose out on some features and services, including Google Now and Google’s fantastic and ever-improving artificial intelligence services.
That’s your choice, of course. I’ve made mine, and I allow information gathering. Sure, Google knows where I am, what I’m searching for, what I like taking pictures of, and much more. But I believe I’m getting something worthwhile in return, in the form of a more powerful smartphone experience that gives me contextual, relevant information when I need it. It’s made my life easier. And honestly, I have nothing to hide. So what if Google knows all of that stuff about me? All I have to deal with (for now) are some annoyingly relevant ads.
Today’s latest controversy crops up around the fact that Google is gathering your smartphone location data even if you’ve opted out. Yes, that sounds bad. It takes away your choice, because you made a choice that was seemingly ignored, thereby nullifying the very idea of choice. But perhaps it’s worth going into the details on this.
The issue was first reported by Quartz, which discovered that even if you’ve disabled Google’s location services, your Android smartphone is gathering information about the cellular towers you’re connected to. It then sends that information to Google, giving the company an idea of where you are using triangulation methods. The company is reported to be doing this since January 2017. The only way to prevent this is to pull your SIM card out and ensure the phone doesn’t even connect to Wi-Fi, thus making the phone about as useful as a painted brick.
Quartz did also receive a reply from a Google spokesperson, who states that the Cell ID codes are used to improve the speed and performance of message delivery. That information has never been incorporated into the network sync system and is immediately discarded. After the issue was flagged, Google has assured that it will stop this form of data collection entirely.
I’m inclined to believe what’s being said, because even if Google does have this location information, it’s encrypted and isn’t stored. It could only potentially be used to broadcast information specific to a location, such as emergency broadcasts during calamities. Since it isn’t being stored, there’s very little Google can actually do with it beyond that. If your phone was hacked, that information could be diverted to the wrong place. But if your phone was hacked, Google’s location collection would be the least of your worries.
Additionally, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of a giant company taking advantage of its market position to gather more information than is needed or ethically acceptable. Apple has been known to collect location information discreetly for years, including location (as reported by The Telegraph in 2014 and Wired in 2011) and voice (as reported by ZDNet in 2013). While privacy concerns remain relevant, there’s often a fine line between what’s ethically right and what’s actually happening.
The entire privacy argument is logical, but let’s admit that we’re perhaps making too big a deal out of this. Your choice to opt out of location services remains, and you can still choose to not let Google have too much information about you. But you’re losing out on more than you gain, in my opinion. This secret and unauthorized collection of data is certainly wrong. But once again, the implications are certainly not as bad as they sound. And it’s likely to be stopped soon anyway.
For now, we can trust Google to keep our information out of the hands of anyone that intends to harm us with that information. What you get in return for having to look at a few eerily pertinent ads makes it worth it to me. And even if Google is secretly collecting that information, it’s likely to help us in emergencies, rather than out of some twisted, voyeuristic fetish. So perhaps it’s time for all of us to calm down and continue to go about our days with our location services turned on.