Privacy in Marketplace

Tracking Every Step You Take

By Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy

This week seven European consumer organizations filed complaints with their national Data Protection Authorities against Google, asking them to investigate whether the company’s Android smartphones are tracking users’ locations in violation of the new privacy law that took effect in Europe last May. Based on a research report, Every Step You Take, by the Norwegian Consumer Council, the groups accused Google of using deceptive design, misleading information, and “nudging” to manipulate individuals into being constantly tracked, wherever they go, in minute detail, as this alarming video illustrates.

Why does this matter to us in the US? Because the same thing is happening to Android users here. This isn’t the first indication that Google is engaged in location tracking without Android users necessarily realizing it – in August the Associated Press released the results of an extensive investigation showing that some Google apps continue to collect and store users’ location histories even when they have turned that feature off.

Where we go, how often, at what time, and for how long can reveal a lot about us. As the woman in the video noted, Google knows she’s Catholic because it tracked her to the church she attends (and I assume that she could be labeled as “devout” or not, depending on how frequently she attends). Google can also tell what rooms in Android users’ houses they spend time in and where they go in other buildings. This kind of information can be compiled over time to figure out our daily routines, what our politics are, who we visit, what kind of entertainment we like, what types of food we eat, and lots of other personal details. We should be entitled to keep that information to ourselves unless we want to reveal it for a particular purpose. And it certainly shouldn’t be used to treat us unfairly.

We don’t have a comprehensive privacy law in the US, as they do in Europe. But we do believe that there is a basis for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s location tracking practices and we’ve joined with other consumer groups in the US and Europe through the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue to urge the agency to do so.