There's no escaping Google's broad data sweep, study says

WASHINGTON • Google's sweeping capability to collect data makes it nearly impossible to escape the tech giant in the course of normal online activity, a new study shows.

The 55-page study, led by Vanderbilt University computer science lecturer Douglas Schmidt, says an idle smartphone running Google's Android operating system with its Chrome browser open sends data communications to Google's servers as often as 14 times an hour.

And while not using Google's devices or services limits data collection, the dominance of Google's advertising network makes it highly difficult to prevent the tech giant from collecting some data.

The study, published on Tuesday, provides a broad look at the multiple aspects of Google's techniques for collecting data, both through its services such as Maps, Hangouts chat and YouTube, as well as through its DoubleClick Ad Network. It was paid for by Digital Content Next, a lobbying group that represents the digital publishing industry - The Washington Post is a member - and a critic of Google.

The group has previously criticised Google for its lack of moderation on YouTube as well as the company's dominance, with Facebook, of the online advertising industry.

"These products are able to collect user data through a variety of techniques that may not be easily graspable by a general user," Professor Schmidt writes in the paper. "A major part of Google's data collection occurs while a user is not directly engaged with any of its products."

SKEWED

This report is commissioned by a professional DC 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.

GOOGLE, in its response to the study.

Google questioned the study's credibility, saying: "This report is commissioned by a professional DC 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 report comes as Google faces increased scrutiny over how it collects location information, following an Associated Press investigation that revealed that turning off the "location history" setting did not stop all location data collection.

Two men in California filed suits after the report, Ars Technica reported, saying Google misled them about the extent of its tracking.

The new Google lawsuit is not the first time privacy concerns have been raised over geolocation.

Last month, researchers found that fitness app Polar had revealed sensitive data on military and intelligence personnel from 69 countries. The app later disabled the function.

Prof Schmidt found two-thirds of the data Google collected from a smartphone during a 24-hour mock "day in the life" period was through passive means, meaning it was not volunteered by a person. He also said Google has the capability to link anonymised data with information from people's Google accounts while they are signed out from their Google accounts or using a private browsing mode - called "incognito mode" - on Google Chrome.

The study also claims Google can link anonymised data collected by advertising cookies to people's Google accounts. Google makes the bulk of its money from advertising, which accounted for 86 per cent of its revenue in its second-quarter earnings report.

Google said it does not link anonymous activity with people's Google accounts once they sign in. In the case of private browsing, data is deleted when someone turns the mode off. It also said it does not link anonymised data collected from ad cookies with users' accounts.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2018, with the headline 'There's no escaping Google's broad data sweep, study says'. Print Edition | Subscribe