Internet companies like Facebook and Google are under harsh scrutiny as revelations about data collection surface. While Facebook has received much of the backlash, Google may yet get its turn in the spotlight.
A new report from Vanderbilt University professor Douglas Schmidt reveals just how much data Google collects.
The Mountain View-based search giant collects an exorbitant amount of data through various tools. Android, Chrome, the company’s numerous free services and third-party advertising tools enable this data collection.
Most should be aware that Google collects information when people use its services, like Gmail or YouTube. However, Google collects most of the data passively without user interaction.
The report highlights that distinction. Active data collection is when a user inputs information — in other other words, when you go to a Google service, such as Search, and enter a search query.
Passive data collection happens in the background, often without any notification that it’s happening. For example, when you enter that search query, Google passively determines your location.
The report outlines a number of experiments that show just how much data Google collects.
Some of the standout experiments include a ‘day in the life’ scenario; tests to see how much data was collected without user interaction and how data collection differs between devices.
A ‘day in the life’ experiment
The first experiment saw a researcher carry an Android device for a whole day. At the beginning of the experiment, researchers factory reset the device and configured it as a new phone with a new Google Account.
At the end of the day, the researchers checked the device to see what Google collected and how. Passive data collection accounted for over two-thirds of collected data.
Furthermore, the data collected included location, routes taken, items purchased and music listened to.
At the end of the day, Google was able to identify the user’s interests with “remarkable accuracy.”
Data communicated to Google 14 times per hour
The second major experiment examined how much data Google collected from a dormant phone. Researchers took an Android device and left it alone with Chrome active in the background.
Over a 24-hour period, the device communicated location data to Google 340 times. That’s about 14 communications per hour. Additionally, the report says location data constituted 35 percent of all data samples sent to Google.
A similar experiment using an iOS device running Safari showed that Google was unable to collect any “appreciable data” without user interaction.
Using your phone sends more data
Finally, data transmission increases significantly when users interact with devices. Even if they don’t use Google applications, data is communicated using Google’s publisher products like Google Analytics, DoubleClick and AdWords.
According to the report, that data made up 46 percent of all requests to Google servers from Android phones.
Furthermore, Google collected location data 1.4 times more than the stationary Android phone with no interaction.
Schmidt writes in the report that Google’s servers communicated 11.6MB of data per day, or about 0.35GB per month, with the Android device they tested.
People who use iOS and forgo all Google products and only visit non-Google web pages aren’t safe, either. The report found the total data communicated from an iOS device to Google in this scenario to be roughly half that of an Android device.
Not safe in Incognito
The report also holds harsh truth for users who rely on Incognito mode to dodge Google’s spying. According to Schmidt, Google can de-anonymize anonymized data collected from Incognito browsers.
If a user browses a website with a Google service such as DoubleClick equipped and then later signs into a Google application, such as Gmail, the company can connect the anonymous DoubleClick data to your account.
However, a Google spokesperson told AdAge that the company doesn’t connect anonymized data in this way.
Furthermore, the spokesperson said the company takes issue with the report because Schmidt was once an expert witness on behalf of Oracle in a case against Google.
“This report is commissioned by a professional DC lobbyist group, and written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google,” the spokesperson told AdAge.
“So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information.”
Despite that, this isn’t the first time someone accused Google of collecting location data. The company recently admitted it collected location data even if you turn off ‘Location History’ setting in Google Maps.
Furthermore, a 2017 report accused Google of collecting location data from devices that had location turned off. Google explained that it was collecting cellular tower data to improve messaging speed and inadvertently collected location information.
The company told MobileSyrup that it didn’t need the location data and it discarded it. Furthermore, Google said it ceased collection of location data that way in November 2017.
You can view the full report here.