How Google Knows So Much About You (Hint: It’s your Android phone)

As I mentioned in my previous post about making the jump from Android to iOS, I’m really enjoying some of the things that Apple has to offer (although there are many that baffle me).

One of the things I’m enjoying most, though, is Apple’s approach to privacy from 3rd parties – Google included. While I definitely still use lots of Google services on my iPhone (Maps, Gmail, Drive, etc.) and Google still gets its fair share of data for marketing and ad targeting from me, I still marvel at the vast amount of data that Google gets from Android users (even those that don’t use Google apps).

These two articles over on Quartz Media, released just a few days ago, really shed a light on the incredible amount of data that Google handsets have access to, and the very clever ways in which they get users to give them that data.

Location History

Although the headline may be (a bit) hyperbolic, the article “If you’re using an Android phone, Google may be tracking every move you make” brings up some things I knew about Google’s very extensive location and activity tracking, and some things I didn’t.

While it’s pretty obvious that, when enabled, location history would track things like GPS position, nearby cell towers, and the MAC address of all nearby WifI and Bluetooth APs and beacons, it’s not so obvious that Google is also constantly guessing about your current activity (running, biking public transporation, etc.), but Google also receives data on things like battery charge, voltage, and whether or not it’s charging. As an aside, you’d think this data would have shown Google that my Nexus 6P really was defective.

Interestingly, while the location history is opt in, Google doesn’t readily disclose that enabling it in one app will allow data from other Google apps to be transmitted to the Google mothership. Want Google Photos to group your pictures by location, or get information about local traffic? Both these services require Location History to be on (which makes sense), but there’s no way to limit the data that flows to Google – once it’s on in one app, it’s on for all of them.

Bluetooth – When Off Isn’t Off

In the article Google can still use Bluetooth to track your Android phone when Bluetooth is turned off, takes the Location History data to the next level, demonstrating just how difficult it is to really turn Bluetooth off on your phone – and why Google doesn’t want you to.

Basically, more and more businesses are putting small Bluetooth transmitters in specific areas of larger stores. These are known as beacons, and while they are one-way transmitters (they only send a signal – they get no data from your phone) by determining the relative strength of these Bluetooth beacons, along with things like cellular and Wifi signal, Google can determine both where you are in a store (down to the specific aisle or rack of clothes) and how long you stay there. Useful information to use when targeting users for specific ads – either on your smartphone or back on your computer or tablet.

Additionally, even with Bluetooth set to “Off”, this kind of tracking still happens. Of all the different ways to turn Bluetooth on and off (and their are several), there is only a single way to disable Bluetooth scanning (which is what Google uses to detect these beacons). Even with Bluetooth and scanning set to “off”, with certain location modes set to “on” Bluetooth scanning will still happen. The article has a pretty neat chart which shows exactly how to turn this “feature” off.

This obfuscation seems intentional, since most consumers probably aren’t really aware of Bluetooth beacons and will almost certainly not wander across the Bluetooth scanning page accidentally (much less read the fine print there).

As an additional level of paranoia, consider the removal of the headphone jack. Which both encourages the use of Bluetooth and increases the likelihood that Bluetooth (or Bluetooth scanning) would be left on, since turning Bluetooth on and then off would still keep the Bluetooth scanning on. The scanning feature must be turned off manually whenever Bluetooth has been toggled.

Final Thoughts

In reality, though, neither an Android or iPhone are really great to carry around if you’re looking to stay completely anonymous. However, since Apple makes most of their money selling overpriced hardware (and they’ve been doubling down on their privacy rhetoric lately) I’m inclined to believe that they keep most of what they have about me in-house. Google, on the other hand, makes most of their money selling ads to companies that want my business (although they still sell overpriced hardware) and so their business model depends on having as much information about me as possible.

Neither one is 100% great, of course, but it is worth pointing out that Google and Apple, while both in the smartphone business, seem to be in it for different reasons.