‘Apple is eating our lunch’: Google employees admit in lawsuit that the company made it nearly impossible for users to keep their location private

Google New York Office
Google in Manhattan.

Newly unredacted documents in a lawsuit against Google reveal that the company’s own executives and engineers knew just how difficult the company had made it for smartphone users to keep their location data private.

Google continued collecting location data even when users turned off various location-sharing settings, made popular privacy settings harder to find, and even pressured LG and other phone makers into hiding settings precisely because users liked them, according to the documents.

Jack Menzel, a former vice president overseeing Google Maps, admitted during a deposition that the only way Google wouldn’t be able to figure out a user’s home and work locations is if that person intentionally threw Google off the trail by setting their home and work addresses as some other random locations.

Jen Chai, a Google senior product manager in charge of location services, didn’t know how the company’s complex web of privacy settings interacted with each other, according to the documents.

Google and LG did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The documents are part of a lawsuit brought against Google by the Arizona attorney general’s office last year, which accused the company of illegally collecting location data from smartphone users even after they opted out.

A judge ordered new sections of the documents to be unredacted last week in response to a request by trade groups Digital Content Next and News Media Alliance, which argued that it was in the public’s interest to know and that Google was using its legal resources to suppress scrutiny of its data collection practices.

The unsealed versions of the documents paint an even more detailed picture of how Google obscured its data collection techniques, confusing not just its users but also its own employees.

Google uses a variety of avenues to collect user location data, according to the documents, including WiFi and even third-party apps not affiliated with Google, forcing users to share their data in order to use those apps or, in some cases, even connect their phones to WiFi.

“So there is no way to give a third party app your location and not Google?” one employee said, according to the documents, adding: “This doesn’t sound like something we would want on the front page of the [New York Times].”

When Google tested versions of its Android operating system that made privacy settings easier to find, users took advantage of them, which Google viewed as a “problem,” according to the documents. To solve that problem, Google then sought to bury those settings deeper within the settings menu.

Google also tried to convince smartphone makers to hide location settings “through active misrepresentations and/or concealment, suppression, or omission of facts” – that is, data Google had showing that users were using those settings – “in order to assuage [manufacturers’] privacy concerns.”

Google employees appeared to recognize that users were frustrated by the company’s aggressive data collection practices, potentially hurting its business.

“Fail #2: *I* should be able to get *my* location on *my* phone without sharing that information with Google,” one employee said.

“This may be how Apple is eating our lunch,” they added, saying Apple was “much more likely” to let users take advantage of location-based apps and services on their phones without sharing the data with Apple.

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Apple and Google have reportedly banned a major data broker from collecting location data from users’ phones amid scrutiny over its national security work

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  • Apple and Google have banned X-Mode, a major data broker, from collecting location from users whose mobile devices run iOS and Android, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
  • The tech giants told developers they must remove X-Mode’s tracking software or risk being cut off from their app stores — and therefore the vast majority of mobile devices globally.
  • The move by Apple and Google follows recent reports by The Wall Street Journal and Vice News about X-Mode’s national security contracts and congressional scrutiny over how government agencies purchase Americans’ location data from private companies.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Apple and Google have banned X-Mode Social, a major data broker, from collecting mobile location data from iOS and Android users following criticism of its national security work, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The tech giants are requiring developers to remove X-Mode’s tracking software from their apps or they could get cut off from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, according to The Journal. Apple has given developers two weeks to comply, the newspaper reported.

In a statement to Business Insider, a Google spokesperson said: “We are sending a 7-day warning to all developers using the X-Mode SDK. Apps that need more time due to the complexity of their implementation can request an extension, which can be up to 30 days (including the initial 7-days). If X-Mode is still present in the app after the timeframe, the app will be removed from Play.”

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems power nearly all smartphones worldwide, effectively forcing developers to ditch X-Mode, and the policies mark one of the most direct actions against a specific data broker.

“X-Mode collects similar mobile app data as most location and advertising SDKs in the industry. Apple and Google would be setting the precedent that they can determine private enterprises’ ability to collect and use mobile app data,” an X-Mode spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement.

X-Mode is still trying to get information from Apple and Google on why its tracking software is different than what other location data companies – or even Apple and Google themselves – collect, the spokesperson added.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

The moves by Apple and Google follow recent reports about how X-Mode sells users’ location data to US defense contractors, and by extension US military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies – contracts that have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers who argue it undermines Americans’ privacy rights by allowing the government to avoid having to obtain search warrants.

Both Apple and Google disclosed their new policies banning X-Mode to investigators working on behalf of Sen. Ron Wyden, according to The Wall Street Journal. Wyden has been investigating how private companies collect and sell Americans’ mobile location data to the government, often without their knowledge, and has proposed legislation that would ban the practice.

Vice News reported in November that X-Mode collects location data from users via as many as 400 apps, including Muslim prayer and dating apps, weather apps, and fitness trackers, and then sells that data to contractors that work with the US Air Force, US Army, and US Navy. X-Mode CEO Josh Anton told CNN Business in April the company tracks 25 million devices in the US every month.

The Wall Street Journal also reported last month that the US Air Force is indirectly using location data from X-Mode to monitor internet-of-things devices.

Other private data brokers have faced pushback in recent months for similar sales of Americans’ location data to US government agencies and contractors. Lawmakers are investigating Venntel for selling data to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, who reportedly used the data to surveil illegal immigrants, as well as the IRS for buying data from Venntel.

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