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Yes, Google Play is tracking you — and that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg

On Monday, a story broke that Google Play — the near-ubiquitous service that Google uses to distribute software within Android — was using GPS to track your every move, whether you enabled Google Maps to use location tracking or not. The only way to completely disable this kind of location tracking is to disable Google Play.

This is all true, as far as it goes. But the conclusions are a bit less cut-and-dried than some publications like The Register have made it sound. Let’s break it down.

First of all, it’s true that location services are integrated into Google Play and that Google actively encourages developers to use Google Play services, rather than the open-source location APIs that are part of AOSP (Android Open Source Project). This is a theme we’ve discussed before in other contexts — Google has been replacing AOSP components with its own, closed-source mechanisms for years now, and it requires the phone OEMs to agree to fairly onerous terms in exchange for shipping Google Play. This core disagreement is why Amazon forked Android and created its own distro. It’s why there’s limited overlap by default between the apps that are available on Amazon hardware and what you get with Google Android. (Amazon Fire tablets can install the Google Play Store, but they don’t ship with it installed by default and you have to jump through some hoops to get everything working).

Google has a set of APIs, including location-based, that run through Google Play, and there’s some concern in the EU about how this may have impacted the competitive market. Because these APIs are linked to Google Play, you may see pop-ups in some cases that aren’t coming through specific applications like Google Maps. So how does this relate to the tweet from Mustafa Al-Bassam, the security researcher who first discussed the issue?

Mustafa1

It’s been speculated that what happened to Al-Bassam is linked to Nearby, a new feature Google described last June:

[G]etting the right apps at the right time can be tough if you don’t already know about them. So, we’re introducing a new Android feature called Nearby, which notifies you of things that can be helpful near you.

For example:
Print photos directly from your phone at CVS Pharmacy.
Explore historical landmarks at the University of Notre Dame.
Download the audio tour when you’re at The Broad in LA.
Skip the customs line at select airports with Mobile Passport.
Download the United Airlines app for free in-flight entertainment while you wait at the gate, before you board your flight.

Tagging you to download the McDonald’s application when you step inside a store is right in line with the kind of “Nearby” function Google wants to implement. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Bots and personal digital assistants are a hot topic these days. From Microsoft to Facebook, companies want to talk about how they’re building new types of software to assist with your appointment calendar, social life, grocery shopping, customer service, and ordering fast food. This is the logical extension of targeted advertising, which tries to show you advertising for things you might be interested in, based on things you’ve recently purchased or sites you’ve visited.

The problem with targeted advertising is that it’s intrinsically reactive. To use one common example: Run a bunch of searches for airlines and air travel, and you’ll start seeing ads pop up for those services. But what if you’ve already booked your plans? You might see more ads for headphones after you start researching, but most people aren’t going to buy a second set of headphones immediately after buying the first. Google Nearby is meant to alert you to interesting events or places in your immediate vicinity, but it also gives Google the ability to make a connection between you and a corporation that didn’t previously exist. Google’s own example cites prompting users to download a video-on-demand application from a particular provider while waiting at an airline terminal gate — a gate that the OS knows is assigned to United as opposed to Delta or JetBlue.

There are only two ways for a service like Nearby to provide that kind of customized function: Either the OS knows that you’re traveling on United because it has access to your calendar and/or email, or it knows your location. Ideally, from Google’s perspective, it knows both. This allows the OS to start making assumptions about what you’re going to do next. This idea is nothing new; stories about how “smart fridges” of the future would be able to automatically tell you when you’re out of food are literally decades old. What’s new is the way these features are tied to corporate interests and advertising.

Imagine a future in which Siri or Cortana recommends flights to you based on your known travel times and preferred departure dates. Give them permission, and they’ll keep a tireless watch on flight prices for the locations you prefer. If you’re driving, your digital assistant might offer you a custom-built list of the cheapest gas along your route within a specified distance from the interstate. If Apple succeeds at killing off the headphone jack, future computers will automatically know the names of the devices we hook to them — and that means Cortana / Siri / Google Now would be able to suggest replacement headphones for you before you’ve finished the “s” in “broken headphones.” Combine drone delivery with fast food and precise geolocation monitoring, and you’ve got a system in which Domino’s can literally deliver a pizza to your exact location (provided you’re outside, anyway).

Maybe you like these ideas. Maybe you feel like they’re a bridge too far and an invasion of privacy. But either way, the future that Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other companies envision is one in which your every motion, interest, and desire are tracked, combined, bought, sold, and turned into sales dollars.

So, yes. Google’s location APIs are tracking you unless you turn them off. In some cases, you may have to turn them off through Google Play rather than at the per-app level. But this is one small part of Google’s overall business strategy to create a closed-source net around Android’s open-source roots. The actual feature that probably caused the kerfuffle is itself part of a larger trend to gather details about every aspect of your life, the better to advertise and market it to companies willing to pay. Consider, after all, the value of having that McDonald’s app on your smartphone to McDonald’s (or any other company).

From automatic geotagging to facial recognition, the same companies that provide essential digital services build databases of your activities, travels, and life. Said data is then vacuumed up and sold through third parties with names like Acxiom with little oversight and less accountability.

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