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Google quietly killed a service that used Android phone data to help mobile carriers improve their networks

Published Aug 19th, 2019 8:08PM EDT
Android User Privacy
Image: YouTube

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Google may have never told you that it stopped sharing data from your Android devices with your mobile service providers months ago, just like it didn’t tell you when it started sharing that data in the first place.

Reuters reports that Google provided anonymized, aggregated data about signal strength and connection speeds to carriers. In turn, the operators could use the data to detect weak spots in their networks and perform upgrades and improvements. It sounds great on paper, and like something everyone could benefit from. Customers would get better service, carriers would be able to provide better service, and Google would have more Android users surfing the web at faster speeds on their devices. What’s not to like?

Shut down in April, the service provided data to carriers for free, offering them insights into the quality of their competitors’ networks for the same geographical area, without disclosing those by name.

However, the Mobile Network Insights service was providing all of that data without explicit consent. According to Reuters, the data came from those users who had opted into sharing location history and usage and diagnostics with Google. But while Google’s data policy does say that it may collect and share network connection quality information, it doesn’t specifically mention wireless carriers as recipients. This is a small but significant detail.

As for the whole location-tracking thing, we’ll remind you that Google faced criticism last year over how it handled location data after a report revealed it still collects location data even if location tracking is disabled.

As Reuters explains, the decision to turn off the Mobile Network Insights program came after Google became increasingly concerned about new scrutiny of user privacy from regulators.

Google didn’t officially elaborate on the reasons why it closed the service. “We worked on a program to help mobile partners improve their networks through aggregated and anonymized performance metrics,” Google spokeswoman Victoria Keough said. “We remain committed to improving network performance across our apps and services for users.”

Carriers have invested in other tools for measuring network quality, and one of them might be Facebook’s Actionable Insights. Facebook’s service also includes information about the users’ gender, age, and other characteristics. Per Reuters, this data can help carriers spot demographic trends for marketing, but doesn’t contain any identifiable user data. The now-closed program did not include any user demographics or app usage data, Google said.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.