Android phones keep track of their owners, too -- but they ask

by Phil Hornshaw

There’s been much made out of the recently reported, but not so unknown, feature of Apple’s iPhone, which stores GPS location data in an unencrypted file, effectively tracking the iPhone’s user continually and saving the information indefinitely.

Reports currently say that the information isn’t necessarily being used or sent back to Apple, just sitting unprotected on the phone. The whole thing has blown up into quite a controversy. One forensic researcher says the unprotected GPS information has been used by law enforcement for some time in investigations, although he wouldn’t disclose which agencies are using it.

And lawmakers have even gotten involved. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota sent a letter with questions to Apple over the issue, and Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington issued a statement condemning the potential privacy violations that saving the data implies.

But while the attention might be focused on Apple for potential privacy violations, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google’s Android phones are engaged in the same kind of tracking -- but they ask users first.

Here’s a quote from the WSJ story:

“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.”

Google lets owners of Android phones opt-in to location tracking, called Google Location Services, when they first set up their phones, according to PC World. Users can disable at least some of the tracking in their phones’ setting menus. Google says it uses the information to do things like measure traffic for its maps application, and location information is used by apps and can help smartphones route calls more efficiently. Google also said the information isn’t tied to particular phones, but the WSJ’s findings show that data includes individual identifiers for the phones it comes from.

Apple said in a letter to lawmakers last year that it “intermittently” collects data from phones, with the iPhones transmitting once every 12 hours.

Google and Apple have already run into problems over data security as it relates to apps, and these new revelations about data-gathering that users don’t seem to be too savvy about are sure to create more issues. Apple is currently dealing with a class-action lawsuit about app security and information getting sent on to third-party advertisers, and Google had to remotely kill about 30 apps a few months back when it was discovered they contained malware.

Though there are some explanations for what Apple and Google are doing with all this user data, it’s likely that a crackdown from the federal government and legislators is on the way. It’s probably a good idea in general to pop into the settings on your Android handset and opt out of Google’s location tracking now, because, as was demonstrated with Apple’s iPhones last week, it’s very possible your data isn’t well-protected.