Commentary

Google Must Face Lawsuit For Sharing App Purchasers' Names With Developers

Last year, it seemed as if Google won a privacy lawsuit, when a federal judge dismissed a complaint alleging that the company violated app purchasers' privacy by sharing their names with developers.

But that apparent victory turned out to be short-lived. U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman in San Jose, Calif. recently reversed course, ruling that Illinois resident Alice Svenson could proceed with amended allegations against Google.

Svenson initially sued Google in September of 2013, several months after Australian developer Dan Nolan blogged that Google automatically shares app buyers' personal information with developers.

"Every App purchase you make on Google Play gives the developer your name, suburb and email address with no indication that this information is actually being transferred," Nolan wrote. “With the information I have available to me through the checkout portal I could track down and harass users who left negative reviews."

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The revelations drew headlines, but Google didn't see any problems with its practice. In fact, the company said it intentionally designed its platform so that people who purchase apps do so directly from the developer.

The privacy policy for Google Wallet says the company may disclose information that is necessary to process transactions. Google contends that it's necessary to share users' data, because the company isn't itself processing the purchase.

Svenson alleged in her complaint that she purchased an app from Google Play for $1.77 in May. She said that Google then shared her personal information with the YCDroid, the developer of the app, which converts SMS messages to emails.

She accused Google of breaking its contract with her by allegedly disclosing her personal information to a third party. She specifically alleged that Google's decision to transfer her data created “a significant and imminently greater risk of identity theft.”

When Freeman initially threw out the lawsuit, she ruled that Svenson hadn't shown that she was injured by the alleged breach of contract.

But Svenson countered in an amended complaint that Google lessened the value of her personal information by sharing it with YCDroid. She added that there is a “robust market” for that type of data, and that she -- and other app purchasers -- were deprived of the ability to sell their data themselves.

In a ruling issued last week, Freeman said that latter allegation was sufficient to warrant further proceedings in the case.

Of course, Google could still prevail in the end. But for now, this lawsuit joins a host of other cases challenging Google's data collection practices -- including a long-running case about data collection by the Street View cars, and a just-settled class-action stemming from allegations that Google “leaked” the names of search engine users.

Google must file its next round of court papers in the Svenson matter by April 16.

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