November 23, 2020

Study of Google Data Collection Comes Amid Increased Scrutiny Over Digital Privacy

From Vanderbilt University:

Google may not know whether you’ve been bad or good but it knows when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake. If you use an Android device with the Chrome browser running, the tech giant knows whether you are traveling by foot or car, where you shop, how often you use your Starbucks app and when you’ve made a doctor’s appointment.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering Douglas C. Schmidt studied Google’s data collection practices under a “day in the life” scenario of an Android phone user. The 55-page study, commissioned by Digital Content Next, a trade group representing digital publishers, also detailed data mining over a 24-hour period from an idle Android phone with Chrome running in the background.

The stationary smartphone running Google’s Android operating system and Chrome sent data to the company’s servers an average of 14 times an hour, 24 hours a day.

“These products are able to collect user data through a variety of techniques that may not be easily graspable by a general user,” Schmidt concluded in the paper, released in August 2018. “A major part of Google’s data collection occurs while a user is not directly engaged with any of its products.”

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After the study’s release, Google questioned its credibility.

“This report is commissioned by a professional lobbyist group, and written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google. So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information,” the company said in a statement.

“In May of 2016 I was a witness for the Oracle vs. Google ‘Fair Use Copyright,’ trial (which had nothing to do with Google’s data collection practices), but have not been involved with this case since then,” Schmidt replied. “Moreover, Google has not been able to identify any specific aspects of my report’s methods or conclusions as erroneous.”

Schmidt studied data gathering from all Google platforms and products, such as Android mobile devices, the Chrome browser, YouTube and Google Photos, plus the company’s publishing and advertising services, such as DoubleClick and AdWord

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After the study’s release, Google questioned its credibility.

“This report is commissioned by a professional lobbyist group, and written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google. So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information,” the company said in a statement.

“In May of 2016 I was a witness for the Oracle vs. Google ‘Fair Use Copyright,’ trial (which had nothing to do with Google’s data collection practices), but have not been involved with this case since then,” Schmidt replied. “Moreover, Google has not been able to identify any specific aspects of my report’s methods or conclusions as erroneous.”

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The study also compared data collection from an idle Android phone running Chrome with an idle iPhone running Apple’s operating system and the Safari browser. Google did not collect user location information during the 24-hour time frame. The Android phone communicated with Google twice as often as the iPhone did.

“I found that an idle Android phone running the Chrome browser sends back to Google nearly 50 times as many data requests per hour as an idle iOS phone running Safari,” Schmidt said. “I also found that idle Android devices communicate with Google nearly 10 times more frequently as Apple devices communicate with Apple servers. These results highlight the fact that Android and Chrome platforms are critical vehicles for Google’s passive data collection.”

Schmidt found Google has the ability to identify specific users by combining “user-anonymous” advertiser data with its own collected data. The study could not determine whether the company takes such steps to link de-anonymized data when a user logs into Gmail or other Google services. In its statement, Google said it does not connect the data sources or identify users.

Learn More, Read the Complete Article

See Also: Google Data Collection  (via Digital Context Next)
Full text report by Douglas Schmidt cited in article.
55 pages; PDF.

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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