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Australian Regulator Investigates Google Data Harvesting From Android Phones

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will investigate reports Google harvests huge amounts of data from Android phones, including detailed location information, after the software company Oracle revealed Google could be harvesting a gigabyte of data from devices each month.


Not only does data transfer raise new privacy concerns for the 10 million Android users in Australia but they are also reportedly paying their telco providers to send the data. If it is in the vicinity of the gigabyte a month Oracle estimates, it is likely costing millions.

The Australian revealed that Oracle had made a presentation to the ACCC, which is holding an inquiry into digital platforms. The inquiry was prompted by the concerns of Australian media companies about the impact that Google and Facebook are having on the advertising market.

According to the Oracle presentation to the ACCC, Android devices send detailed information on searches and what is being viewed. But they can also send precise locations even if location services are turned off, and they do not have a Sim card or apps installed.

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.

According to the chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, David Vaile, 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.

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

Google argues 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 Google privacy policy, under the heading “Data we process when you use Google”, says: “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.”

But it does not explicitly refer to Android devices, just Google services.

It also says: “When you use Google services we may collect and process information about your actual location.”

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

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

“They are both extremely good at manipulating the law and they use those legalities,” he said. “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.”

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

Vaile said 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.

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