What Google’s Recent Smartphone controversy tells us

What was the scandal: Google’s Recent Smartphone controversy ?

The daily news seems filled these days with ever-expanding stories about the information we give away both to technology companies like Facebook and Google, and with stories concerning the surveillance undertaken by governments around the world.

Among these concerning stories sits a single fact: Without a doubt, your smartphone is the thing which knows most about you. When the contents of your smartphone are divulged, a level of insight into your movements and character are released which would stun most people.

What ‘snooping’ accusation has been leveled at Google?

The most concerning story in recent times then came last week, when Oracle leveled an attack against Google – suggesting that the company was extracting all the data from our smartphones, doing it in real time and that we were being charged in our mobile data plan for the privilege.

Oracle, a company which is not exactly on the best of terms with Google and the story seemed to die quickly. In my view, it’s worth examining what Oracle claimed in more detail.

What does it mean to the average Android user?

Assuming there is some truth to the suggestion Oracle have made, specifically, that Android phones study and report in real time the movements of their owners, it means a number of things to every Android user in the world.

Google is using your data and charging you for the privilege:

Oracle estimates that the average Android user is charged 1GB per month of data just to transmit back to Google information about themselves. At current market rates, that could cost $5 to $10 per person, on even the most up to date phone plan with a cheap data inclusion. The total cost could could be $50-$100 per year in ‘Google spying on me tax.’

They are tracking your every move:

Google don’t just track your location using your smartphone. They track your position in 3 dimensions (the y-axis -altitude- is established with an altimeter in the phone which, for example, ‘knows’ what level of a shopping mall you are on.

This is critical information. Google try and show the value in their search sales by connecting an online search with an offline purchase.

If they can show a national retailer that an individual searched ‘buy suit’ and then went in to a department store to buy one (identifying which store, for example, on the third story of a mall) then they can take credit for the sale and justify a higher charge for the search term.

Just to be clear, at a National level, the sum of these relatively small dollar monthly charges is enormous, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in Australia alone, where the issue was raised.

What did Google say in response to the accusation?

Google denied the accusation, pointed out that they were in litigation with Oracle over the use of Java (an Oracle product) in Android and reminded everyone that they sign up to Google’s terms and conditions, when they sign up to a Google service.

Summing it all up – the furor died down very quickly with this one

Even without being a security expert, people have essentially of ‘opted in’ to an agreement with Google, when they decide to use the company’s digital services – like Gmail, search, Google Plus and so on. Individuals can pretend to be shocked and upset about the snooping that goes on but these days, most people know the deal.

We need to ask ‘So what?’ about these suggestions of snooping. So what if Google know what you think, know what you’ll do next, know what information or content will change your mind.

The risk of tech companies scraping our lives to sell us things is not in the Western world. It can present a risk in countries which have restricted freedoms, however. This sort of information can be used against journalists.

But in the Australia as in the USA, UK, Europe and so on, we can think of these surveillance activities differently. What Google is doing in a political context is effectively just tailoring messages to people in the same way an effective, charming politician might.

In the commercial world, Google simply use the information they have to behave as an effective, charming salesperson might, asking us questions, to establish our real needs and then pitching a product that will meet them.

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