The Corner

Google Is Still Watching You


A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that my Google Android phone was collecting more information about me than I’d realized. I wrote a short piece about it, which appeared on NRO last Thursday. Google got in touch with me the same day.

In a lengthy phone call, a pair of spokesmen explained that Google takes privacy concerns seriously, and tried hard to convince me that I’d gotten the facts wrong. There is one point I will concede: I said the location-sharing service Latitude was new; apparently it’s been around since 2009 and was merely newly installed on my phone, bundled in a system update that was installed automatically.

Here is an example of Google’s thinking: I had said that “it seemed the only thing I could do with Latitude was turn it on.” Google objected: You don’t have to turn Latitude on, and you can certainly turn it off, so my comment was inaccurate. But I used the word “seemed” for a reason, and explained the process in the piece: While you can launch Latitude like any app (with one touch), you have to go into a different app, and then access a menu and a submenu, to turn it off. At that point, the device warns you that using standalone GPS instead of Latitude can “pose certain risks.” Thus Google nudges its customers: What they want you to do is easy; what they’d rather you didn’t do, isn’t.

Google spoke at length about being “proactive,” pointing out that they were not legally required to send out privacy e-mails like the one that triggered my previous piece. And Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya asked that I print the following statement; I think it frames the issue nicely: “All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

But this left me wondering how I’d started sharing my location without knowing it, and exactly when I’d given Google permission to track my phone.

When I bought my phone, of course. I’d accepted all sorts of things during the initial setup. Somewhere in that jumble was the message about Google collecting anonymous location data continuously and the (according to Google) Verizon-authored warning that standalone GPS could “pose certain risks.”

It is, of course, possible to reject a privacy warning or user agreement. My mom did that with Google’s Android Market. So now, every evening around 11 p.m., the user agreement comes back — just to give her one more chance to think things over. She’s thinking about accepting the agreement just to get her phone to stop badgering her. No doubt that’s exactly what Google wants.