Report: Google Calls Location Data ‘Extremely Valuable’

Apple has downplayed the importance of location data, but a report suggests Google thinks differently

Apple downplayed the importance of the location data being logged by its iPhones and iPads running iOS 4, but Google, whose Android operating system does the same, finds the data “extremely valuable”.

According to a 1 May report from The Wall Street Journal, Steve Lee, a Google engineer, wrote in a May 2010 email to Google chief executive Larry Page, “I cannot stress enough how important Google’s Wi-Fi location database is to our Android and mobile-product strategy.”

Privacy lawsuit

The email is part of a public filing in a lawsuit against Google, reports the Journal, that underscores the importance of location-related data to the mobile applications run by ever-climbing numbers of smartphones and tablets. With users’ permission, Google collects information about the Wi-Fi networks surrounding devices running Google’s Chrome Web browser and “versions of some other browsers”, as Wi-Fi is more efficient than GPS signals, the report added.

Apple experienced a wave of criticism following the 22 April disclosure by two tech researchers that its devices are not only collecting location data, but collecting enormous amounts of it – noting data points approximately 100 times a day, they estimated, since iOS 4’s release nearly a year ago – and storing it unencrypted.

In response, Apple posted to its website on 27 April answers to questions it said had recently been asked. First, it said, “Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone.” Rather, what it’s doing, the company said, is:

“…maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.

“…The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location … We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon.”

It added that a software bug, which will be repaired in an update, was responsible for storing quite so much information, when the iPhone really only needs to store about a week’s worth of data.

Wi-Fi database

According the Journal report, Lee said that Google had “300 million Wi-Fi networks in its database and could pinpoint a device’s location to within about 100 feet.”

Lee also told the Journal that the information Android devices collected was particularly “crucial”, as in early 2010, Google had stopped collecting Wi-Fi hotspot data from the vehicles it had used to collect street-view images for Google Maps.

“A secondary purpose of the vehicles was to scan the areas around the vehicles to build out Google’s location database,” the report continued, “but Google disclosed in early 2010 that it inadvertently collected personal data from unsecured wireless networks.”

Google and Apple have both agreed to send representatives to a 10 May hearing on the matter being organised by US Senator Al Franken.

Privacy protection

“This hearing will serve as a first step in investigating if federal law protecting consumer privacy – particularly when it relates to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets – is keeping pace with advances in technology,” Franken said in a statement.

Drawing additional federal scrutiny, US Representatives Edward Markey and Joe Barton have queried the four largest wireless carriers on the practice of location tracking and say they plan to continue looking into the matter.

Finally, Google’s location-gathering practices have already sparked a lawsuit. Two Michigan residents, claiming their HTC Inspire 4G smartphones have been tracking them just like “a tracking device for which a court-ordered warrant would ordinarily be required,” are suing Google for $50 million (£30m) in damages.

Google, like Apple and Microsoft, has emphasised that all of its location tracking is done with the consent of its users.