Posted in War on Privacy

Tracking phones, Google is a dragnet for the police

A must-read from The New York Times:

When detectives in a Phoenix suburb arrested a warehouse worker in a murder investigation last December, they credited a new technique with breaking open the case after other leads went cold.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.

Because of Google’s ubiquitous, privacy-destroying data collection practices, it has become one stop shopping for law enforcement, just as foretold by Google’s critics.

The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.

Some people — some of us — foresaw that this would be a problem.

This site is now ten years old and has been calling attention to the awfulness of Google’s business practices for a decade. And it will continue to.

Props to The New York Times for publishing this story. It’s much needed.

Posted in War on Privacy

Google in hot water after not revealing it had hidden a secret microphone in home alarm product

When you buy Google products, a major part of what you’re purchasing is unwelcome nasty surprises that greet you down the road.

As if some folks weren’t concerned enough about the infiltration of potentially privacy-busting devices into the home, Google has admitted it did not disclose that it hid a secret microphone inside one of its products.

Owners of the Nest Secure were surprised earlier this month to read an announcement from Google that it was adding a new voice control feature to its home alarm product:

“Starting today, we’re adding a feature to Nest Secure to do just that: the Google Assistant will be available on your Nest Guard, so you can ask it questions like, “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?” before you set your alarm and leave the house.* Nest Guard is the brains of your Nest Secure; it contains a keypad and all the smarts that power the system. It’s usually placed in a spot with lots of traffic (like the front doorway) making it useful as you come and go.”

This “announcement” is naturally coming as quite a shock to people who bought Nest Guard and didn’t fathom that there was a microphone inside of it. But it’s not surprising to us. Typical Google behavior.

Posted in Legal Troubles, War on Privacy

Google fined for GDPR violations

Bring on the penalties!

Google has been fined 50 million euros (about $57 million) by a French regulator for not properly disclosing to users how their data is collected and used for targeted advertising.

The penalty is the biggest yet imposed under a new European privacy law that went into effect in 2018. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation gives Europeans more control over their information and how companies use it.

France’s National Data Protection Commission said on Monday that it imposed the fine after determining Google hadn’t met its obligation for transparency by making information about its data collection easily accessible to users. The commission found that Google didn’t present information about data-processing purposes and data-storage periods in the same place, sometimes requiring users to make five or six clicks to obtain the information.

The General Data Protection Regulation may not be perfect, but it’s already been a boon for users around the globe, including those outside Europe. Companies like Google will never care about user privacy on their own because their business model is monetizing people’s personal information. That’s why it is so important that laws like the GDPR exist… and that they be vigorously enforced.

Posted in War on Privacy

Slate writer: “I used to trust some of [Google’s] products, like Chrome. I increasingly don’t.”

People like Matthew Green are waking up to reality.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something strange was happening to my Google Chrome web browser. Where Chrome had always allowed me to browse the internet as an anonymous user, suddenly my browser had signed itself into my Google account.

A bit of investigation (and a visit to a nerd forum) pointed me to the cause: Chrome had logged itself in after I visited my Gmail account.

The change in Chrome’s behavior, it turns out, was not a bug. It’s part of a new technical “feature” in the browser called “identity consistency between browser and cookie jar.” Despite the gritty technical name of the feature, it represents a truly fundamental change in the way Chrome works.

For the first 10 years of Chrome’s existence, Chrome was simply a typical web browser. You had the option to sign the browser into Google—and thus take advantage of Google’s many data-sharing and cloud-synchronization options—but you never had to.

In the stroke of an update, the sign-in became mandatory: If you happened to visit a Google property, the browser would attach itself to your Google account.

To Google’s credit, it recognizes the privacy implications of this change, and simply signing the browser into Google does not immediately send your data to Google’s servers. But it brings users within an accidental click of sharing their bookmarks and browsing history with Google.

It is truly a tragedy that so many people use Google Chrome when there are better, privacy-respecting browsers available, like Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla now even makes a special mobile version of Firefox that cleans up after itself called Firefox Focus. Google will never, ever make a tool like that, because it is anathema to Google’s objective of collecting as much data about everyone as possible to monetize all of us for advertising purposes.

It was inevitable that Google would change Chrome to make it easier for it to spy on its users. We’ve been warning of this for years. Unfortunately, many people haven’t listened.

Posted in War on Privacy

Google and Mastercard Cut a Secret Ad Deal to Track Retail Sales

Big Brother Is Watching You:

For the past year, select Google advertisers have had access to a potent new tool to track whether the ads they ran online led to a sale at a physical store in the U.S. That insight came thanks in part to a stockpile of Mastercard transactions that Google paid for.

But most of the two billion Mastercard holders aren’t aware of this behind-the-scenes tracking. That’s because the companies never told the public about the arrangement.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Mastercard Inc. brokered a business partnership during about four years of negotiations, according to four people with knowledge of the deal, three of whom worked on it directly. The alliance gave Google an unprecedented asset for measuring retail spending, part of the search giant’s strategy to fortify its primary business against onslaughts from Amazon.com Inc. and others.

Remember, Google has made it their business to attempt to learn everything… EVERYTHING…. about you. The company’s aim is to eradicate the whole idea of user privacy, one blow at a time. They’ll do whatever it takes to get their hands on our data, whether convincing us to give it to them, buying it, or secretly capturing it without our knowledge.

Posted in Menacing Monopoly, War on Privacy

Google employees protest secret work on censored search engine for China

Some of the people working for the Monster of Mountain View still have a conscience, even if their bosses don’t. Via The New York Times:

Hundreds of Google employees, upset at the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China, have signed a letter demanding more transparency to understand the ethical consequences of their work.

In the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, employees wrote that the project and Google’s apparent willingness to abide by China’s censorship requirements “raise urgent moral and ethical issues.” They added, “Currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment.”

The letter is circulating on Google’s internal communication systems and is signed by about 1,400 employees, according to three people familiar with the document, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Props to these brave souls for speaking up and letting management know they’re not comfortable doing secret work on a project that could result in Google collaborating with Xi’s authoritarian regime.

Posted in War on Privacy

Google records your location even when you tell it not to

An important catch from The Associated Press, via The Guardian:

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.

Computer science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.

The article goes on to say:

Storing your minute-by-minute travels carries privacy risks and has been used by police to determine the location of suspects. So the company will let you “pause” a setting called “location history”.

Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

That isn’t true. Even with “location history” paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

For nearly ten years, this site has been chronicling Google’s war on user privacy, so this is hardly a surprising development. Nevertheless, it shows the need for regulation. Google is never going to reform its ways of its own accord. Its entire business model is based on destroying privacy. And it will go on doing so while feigning to care about its users until governments compel it to change its business practices.

Posted in War on Privacy

Google, You Owe Us: U.K. based campaign seeks to fine Monster of Mountain View for clandestine iPhone tracking

This is great:

Google’s in trouble again over the “Safari Workaround”: the iPhone shakedown for personal information from millions of iPhone users.

In 2012, the workaround got the search giant fined by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $22.5m, fined again a year later for $17m after it got sued by dozens of states, and now has the UK’s Google You Owe Us campaign out for its own pound of flesh.

Make that a few pounds of flesh: The Google You Owe Us campaign has started the process of getting its own comeuppance, and the US fines pale in comparison to what the British group is after.

Monday marked day one in London’s high court, where the collective action is suing the company for what could be as much as £3.2bn (USD $4.3b), according to court filings.

The campaign even has its own beautifully crafted website, which is totally worth checking out.

Posted in War on Privacy

Multiple Google employees quit over company’s machine learning contract with the Pentagon

Bravo to these folks for taking a stand. Bravo!

It’s been nearly three months since many Google employees—and the public—learned about the company’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to a controversial military pilot program known as Project Maven, which aims to speed up analysis of drone footage by automatically classifying images of objects and people. Now, about a dozen Google employees are resigning in protest over the company’s continued involvement in Maven.

The resigning employees’ frustrations range from particular ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in drone warfare to broader worries about Google’s political decisions—and the erosion of user trust that could result from these actions. Many of them have written accounts of their decisions to leave the company, and their stories have been gathered and shared in an internal document, the contents of which multiple sources have described to Gizmodo.

It takes a lot of courage to give up your job in protest of your employer’s business practices. But that is exactly what these twelve people have done. They have refused to compromise on their principles after learning what was going on. They couldn’t go on at Google because they knew Google was doing something immoral.

Posted in War on Privacy

Bloomberg: Google’s Facebook copycat moves leave it more exposed to privacy backlash

Facebook may be getting all the attention lately, but the Monster of Mountain View is still, well, a monster:

No one at Google envied Mark Zuckerberg last week as he was being grilled by Congress. But for years, they certainly coveted the personal data that made Facebook Inc. a formidable digital ad player. And the strategies they set to compete have now placed Google squarely in the cross hairs of a privacy backlash against the world’s largest social-media company.

A backlash that has been a long time in coming.

“Google, in every respect, collects more data. Google, in every respect, has a much bigger advertising business,” said David Chavern, president of News Media Alliance, a publisher trade group. Rather than “a Facebook privacy law,” he expects regulation to target the entire industry.

Google’s many brushes with controversy haven’t deterred the company from making its business practices ever more invasive. Mimicry of Facebook has been occurring for years.

In 2015, the search giant unveiled Customer Match, a tool letting advertisers target ads using consumers’ Gmail addresses. That mirrored a popular Facebook offering called Custom Audiences. Google Plus, the company’s social network, failed to catch on with users but did prompt millions of people to log in to Google’s other web properties, catnip for marketers. Those changes helped Google’s display ad business blossom. Morgan Stanley recently pegged its value at $36 billion.

Political advertisers are among those embracing DoubleClick. Last year, the unit touted a case study with i360, a marketing firm affiliated with the conservative power brokers Charles and David Koch. i360 uses its own data to slice online populations into segments, such as those for and against gun control and traditional marriage. A Google blog post explained how DoubleClick’s systems sucked in that information to help i360 boost the number of its ads people saw. i360 didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Google is incapable of regulating itself, so we clearly need an American equivalent of the European General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, as soon as possible.