Google Bans Tracking Tool That Sold Location Data

Google has banned SafeGraph and its tool. The ban means that any apps working with SafeGraph must remove the offending location gathering code from the apps.

SafeGraph sold Android users’ location data for COVID-19 mapping and other purposes. The company was funded, in part, by the former head of Saudi intelligence.

SafeGraph, one of several companies that collected geolocation data through plug-ins on other Android apps and then aggregated the data to sell, landed on Google’s app removal list in early June.

The ban meant that any apps working with SafeGraph had to remove the location gathering code. The company markets its data to governments, according to reports, but it also sells it on the open market.

Developers had seven days to remove SafeGraph’s SDK from their apps, and failing to comply meant removal from the Play Store, Google told Motherboard.

The data is typically available to anyone with a credit card. It attracts companies like Infutor, which earlier this week announced its Total Property Profiles dataset is available in the SafeGraph Shop.

The partnership with SafeGraph is supposed to offer easy and reliable access to property data, a component to geospatial mapping, urban planning, and prospecting borrowers. But now that Google banned SafeGraph from its app store, it’s not clear how this might affect companies like Infutor.

"Google's ban of Safegraph's SDK has no direct impact on Infutor," an Infutor spokesperson said. "Infutor partnered with Safegraph through its use of Safegraph's Placekey service, which improves mutual clients' use of the free service to join multiple data sets through the standardized Placekey identifier."

Last year Motherboard bought a small set of data from SafeGraph for about $200 to verify the sort of information it contained and test the ease of use for the marketplace.

The data, per Motherboard, included a list of points of interest for the area in which it bought data, and specific next point of interest that visitors went to. For example, one line showed the people who went to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then visited a list of particular convenience store.

The report also identified The New York Times as using SafeGraph data, and data from other brokers, to create maps that showed where people spent their time after COVID-19 lockdowns were relaxed.  

As for the former head of the Saudi intelligence, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud On April 19, 2017 invested in SafeGraph as part of a $16 million Series A funding round. 

SafeGraph said it had enlisted the help of former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, author Sam Harris, Meghan O'Sullivan, who ran Iraq and Afghanistan policy under President George Bush, former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama Mona Sutphen, and former German Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, among others, according to Motherboard. Peter Briger and Peter Thiel are also investors in the company, along with the Series B funding led by Sapphire Ventures, among others.

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