Android Location-Tracking Research Spurs Privacy Suits

Smartphone-Sprint

Google was hit this week with the latest in a string of potential class-action lawsuits stemming from Android's location-tracking capabilities.

This case was brought by Palm Beach County, Fla. residents James and Jessica Jefferys, who purchased Android phones in May 2010. They allege that Google did not disclose in its terms of service its "extensive" tracking of users, or that the phones had unique device identifiers.

"Google's omission of its uniform location tracking policies, practices and procedures was material, as a reasonable consumer has a privacy interest in his or her location and would find it important that a company was recording and storing each location he or she visited," they allege in a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. district court in the Southern District of Florida.

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They said they were harmed because "their personal computers were used in ways they did not approve, and because they were personally tracked just as if by a tracking device for which a court-ordered warrant would ordinarily be required."

The Florida residents' location-tracking lawsuit is at least the sixth of its kind filed against Google since April, when security researchers said that smartphones and other devices collected extensive data about their owners' whereabouts. The researchers also said that Androids store location data in unencrypted files and send the data back to Google.

The Jefferys argue that Google violated a federal computer fraud law, as well as various state laws.

The other lawsuits allege similar facts -- namely, that Google didn't tell device owners that activating their smartphones' location services capabilities could result in location tracking.

Google has said that any location data it gathers is anonymous, and that it only collects information from users who have consented. The first time Android users access location services through the set-up wizard, they are shown a screen with a pre-checked box consenting to the company's collection of the data.

People who don't un-check the box are deemed to have consented to the data collection. If people never go through the set-up wizard, Google doesn't gather location information.

Late last month, Google applied to have the other cases consolidated and transferred to its hometown court, the Northern District of Califronia.

While Google's request has not yet been ruled on in this case, the federal judiciary has granted similar applications in other privacy cases. For instance, a slew of lawsuits stemming from Google's launch of Buzz were consolidated in front of U.S. District Court Judge James Ware in the Northern District of California. He recently approved an $8.5 million settlement that calls for Google to make donations to a variety of schools and privacy organizations.

Likewise, around a dozen lawsuits alleging that Google's Street View cars violated federal wiretap laws by collecting unsecured WiFi transmissions also were consolidated in front of Ware. Google is seeking to have those lawsuits dismissed on the grounds that the transmissions weren't password-protected.

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