Democrats ask FTC to investigate Google's data collection practices

Democrats ask FTC to investigate Google's data collection practices
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Two Democratic senators in a letter on Monday urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google has deceptively collected location data on Android users, even when such services are disabled. 

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (D-Mass.) asked Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joseph Simons to examine “the potential deceptive acts and practices used by Google to track and commoditize American consumers.”

"Most consumers do not understand the level, granularity, and reach of Google's data collection, and there are serious questions about whether they have provided their informed consent and maintain a reasonable ability to avoid participating in this collection," the senators wrote. 

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Their letter comes after a Quartz investigation last fall revealed that Google has been collecting location information from Android users.

Even when an individual's location service is disabled, Android would gather the addresses of nearby cellular towers and then share this data with Google, a practice it began at the start of 2017, according to the Quartz report. 

"The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals’ locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy," the Quartz report says.

The report said the inability to turn off the location services in Android poses a risk for individuals who want to conceal their location for security purposes, like law enforcement officials and victims of domestic abuse.

"All that it takes for users to expose themselves to this collection is to once allow an ambiguously described feature, for example when trying to display photos on a map on the Google Photo service, silently enabling the feature across devices with no expiration date," the senators wrote.

The data collection also reportedly continues to take place even when the phone has been reset to its factory condition, its SIM card has been removed, or when no apps are running on the cellular device.

Google told the news outlet in November that the location information was never stored or used; it was rather used to "further improve the speed and performance of message delivery."

The company also told Quartz it will no longer send such data to Google, at least as part of this service that it offers.

Blumenthal and Markey said they asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai for answers, but received a response that raised further questions about their "characterization of basic consumer protection terms."

"Google claims Google Location History is opt-in, but both the device and application settings on Android phones frequently pushes users into providing 'consent,'" their letter reads.

"Often the actual user choice is a screen that provides two choices, neither of which is a clear 'No'. This set of options is inadequate and the confusing consent process is replicated throughout Android’s various settings, where location privacy is often mischaracterized or subdivided so few users could effectuate their choice to opt-out of Google’s location data gathering."

This information, the lawmakers argue, could be shared and used by advertisers.

"Google has an intimate understanding of personal lives as they watch their user’s seek the support of reproductive health services, engage in civic activities, or attend places of religious worship," Markey and Blumenthal write.

One example of this, the letter notes, is Google's ability to share blog posts about "holiday shopping habits" through the data it collects from users' Location History.

The Hill reached out to Google for comment on the lawmakers' letter.