April 22nd, 2011
Apple, Google Collect User Data
The Wall Street Journal
Apple Inc.’s iPhones and Google Inc.’s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data.
Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.
In the case of Google, according to new research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, an HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour. It also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier.
Google declined to comment on the findings.
Until last year, Google was collecting similar Wi-Fi data with its fleet of StreetView cars that map and photograph streets world-wide. The company shut down its StreetView Wi-Fi collection last year after it inadvertently collected e-mail addresses, passwords and other personal information from Wi-Fi networks. The data that Mr. Kamkar observed being transmitted on Android phones didn’t include such personal information.
Apple, meanwhile, says it “intermittently” collects location data, including GPS coordinates, of many iPhone users and nearby Wi-Fi networks and transmits that data to itself every 12 hours, according to a letter the company sent to U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) last year. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Google and Apple developments follow the Journal’s findings last year that some of the most popular smartphone apps use location data and other personal information even more aggressively than this—in some cases sharing it with third-party companies without the user’s consent or knowledge.
Apple this week separately has come under fire after researchers found that iPhones store unencrypted databases containing location information sometimes stretching back several months.
Google and Apple, the No. 1 and No.3 U.S. smartphone platforms respectively according to comScore Inc., previously have disclosed that they use location data, in part, to build giant databases of Internet WI-Fi hotspots. That data can be used to pinpoint the location of people using Wi-Fi connections.
Cellphones have many reasons to collect location information, which helps provide useful services like local-business lookups and social-networking features. Some location data can also help cellphone networks more efficiently route calls.
Google also has said it uses some of the data to build accurate traffic maps. A cellphone’s location data can provide details about, for instance, how fast traffic is moving along a stretch of highway.
The widespread collection of location information is the latest frontier in the booming market for personal data. Until recently, most data about people’s behavior has been collected from personal computers: That data generally can be tied to a city or a zip code, but it is tough to be more precise. The rise of Internet-enabled cellphones, however, allows the collection of user data tied with much more precision to specific locations.