Google Is Collecting Your Data—Even When Your Phone Isn’t in Use

An idle Android device sent Google 900 data samples in 24 hours

Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

It’s widely known that Google profits handsomely from the vast amounts of data it collects from the billions of people who use its suite of applications, its mobile operating systems and its devices. According to new research released today, most of that valuable personal and location data is being collected when users are not informed that the data is being collected, or when they may not even be actively using their phones.

Even if consumers avoid Google applications and Android devices, Google is still able to collect a considerable amount of user data using the digital advertising tools it provides to advertisers and publishers, the researchers found. And even if Android users turn off Wi-Fi on Android devices, the location of the device is still tracked and sent to Google.

The 55-page study was directed by Vanderbilt University computer science professor Douglas Schmidt and aimed to comprehensively explain the origins and collection practices of the data that Google pulls from the users of its applications and its mobile operating system Android. Schmidt and his research team found that around two-thirds of the data Google collected or inferred from an Android user occurred in the background, when users were not notified that their data was being shared.

“Even if [an Android] user does not interact with any key Google applications, Google is still able to collect considerable information through its advertiser and publisher products,” the researchers found. Likewise, the researchers wrote, “if a user decides to forgo the use of any Google product … and visits only non-Google webpages, the number of times data is communicated to Google servers still remains surprisingly high.”

In the event that a mobile Android phone was entirely stationary and idle over the course of a 24-hour period, the device still sent about 900 data samples to Google. More than a third of those data samples—about 14 an hour—contained location data, the researchers found.

The trade association Digital Content Next, which represents publishers, distributed the study. Its CEO, Jason Kint, said that the study provided a comprehensive baseline understanding of just how much data Google is collecting from users across the internet and how it blends those sources of data together to fuel its lucrative advertising business. Last quarter, more than 85 percent of revenue at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, came from advertising, according to company filings.

“Like any customer or like any user, we all have a general understanding that [companies like Google] are collecting a lot of our data, and we get free services in exchange,” Kint said. “But it’s a powerful data point that most of the data is being collected passively, when you’re not consciously choosing to use their products.”

Vanderbilt University researchers found that iPhones sent data to Google domains about 50 times less than Android phones did.
Digital Content Next

The results show just how much of a vice grip Google has on the web through its suite of apps and advertising tools that track users across the web, Kint said.

“It becomes virtually impossible to not have some sort of relationship with Google when you are a digital user,” he said.

The researchers also found that the anonymous identifier codes used to communicate certain types of data to Google included potentially personally identifiable information like Gmail IDs and the serial numbers of the device used. The data, the researchers suggested, could be used to personally tie various forms of data, like browsing histories, to users.

Using an iPhone instead of a device using Android significantly cut down on the amount of data Google was able to collect. A stationary and idle iPhone sent about 50 times less data to Google compared to the Android phone, the researchers found. Google did not collect any user location from the iPhone user in the 24-hour period, the researchers found, and iPhone devices shared 10 times less data with Apple than Android devices shared data with Google.

Google collected considerably more user data when mobile phones were moving around and were in use. One researcher carried around a factory-reset Android phone with a new Google Account and used it as she went about the regular course of the day. That data, the researchers concluded, was pretty reliable. Google was ultimately able to identify that researcher’s interests “with remarkable accuracy” over the course of the 24-hour period, they wrote.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson slammed the report.

“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 said in an emailed statement. “So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information.”

The spokesperson did not immediately provide an on-the-record statement explaining why the study was “wildly misleading.”

Google’s data collection practices have come under scrutiny as consumers and activists critically examine the longstanding practices of the digital advertising industry. Last week, an investigation by the Associated Press found that Google was still tracking and storing users’ locations even if they opted out of being tracked.

Google has defended its data collection practices, saying that the data collection practices help make its products more useful over time.

According to the report, there are more than 2 billion monthly active users of Android devices around the world, and more than 2 billion Google Chrome downloads across both mobile and desktop devices around the world.

Android phones make up more than 53 percent of the mobile phones in the U.S., and more than 60 percent of Internet users—1 billion monthly active users—use Google Chrome to browse the web.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.