South Korea's media regulator to investigate Google's covert location data collection

A news report on Wednesday (Nov 22) said that Google has been collecting the location data of its Android users since the beginning of the year, even when GPS is disabled. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea's media regulator said Thursday (Nov 23) that it would open an investigation into Google's user data management practices, following news reports confirming the US tech giant has been secretly collecting users' location data from phones running on the Android operating system.

"We plan to first summon Google (Korea) to determine the exact circumstances of this case, and later take appropriate action if necessary," the head of KCC's Privacy Infringement Investigation Division told The Korea Herald.

The ministry stated that it will closely examine whether Google collected and used the location data of Android smartphone users in Korea without obtaining due consent, and also cooperate with other states including the US, the European Union and Japan in case an international investigation is needed.

A news report released by US online media outlet Quartz on Wednesday found that Google has been collecting the location data of its Android users since the beginning of the year, even when GPS is disabled.

According to Quartz, phones running on Google's Android OS have been collecting addresses of nearby cellular towers - even when location-tracking services are turned off - and sending that data back to Google.

This means that even people who actively turn off their GPS tracking service - thinking their locations will no longer be shared - were being tracked by Google nonetheless.

Cell ID codes - data exchanged between a smartphone and a cell tower - can be used to determine roughly where a mobile device is located. It's particularly easier to pinpoint a device's location in urban centers where cell towers are more concentrated.

A Google spokesperson confirmed the practice, noting the Cell ID codes were used alongside many other signals by Google to improve its push notification and message delivery system, and never stored.

The tech giant said it has updated its system so that Android phones no longer transfer the cell tower location data to Google. However, critics have alleged that Google may have sold the massive locational data it had amassed to third parties with marketing and advertisement needs.

Looking ahead, the KCC is expected to examine whether Google broke Korea's privacy regulations with such practices. According to the country's data regulations, collecting a user's locational data without due consent is illegal and subject to fines and punishment.

In Korea, smartphones running on Google's Android OS, including phones produced by Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics are the majority. Android devices are estimated to account for around 80 per cent of Korea's smartphone market.

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