Google faces scrutiny in Arizona smartphone location-tracking probe

18 September 2018 4:52pm

12 September 2018. By Mike Swift.

Google’s regulatory problems over location tracking by Android smartphones continue to widen, with Arizona’s attorney general joining members of Congress in voicing concern that the smartphone operating system may log the movements of its users even after they switched off location tracking.

A statement released late Tuesday by a spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich stopped just short of officially confirming Google as the target of a civil investigation that was made public when the attorney general hired outside counsel to investigate whether a smartphone operating system’s location-tracking practices had violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act.

“Our office has been working on this civil investigation for quite some time,” said Katie Connor, a spokesperson for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. “While we cannot confirm the company or companies at the center of this probe, we decided to move forward and retain outside counsel after a series of troubling news reports, including a recent story that highlighted Google’s alleged tracking of consumer movements even if consumers attempt to opt out of such services.”

Brnovich’s hiring of the Washington law firm of Cooper & Kirk on August 21, revealed in a recent redacted filing, came the same day Google was hit by class-action litigation in San Francisco that accused the search giant of illegally tracking millions of iPhone and Android users on their mobile phones, even when their privacy settings should have prevented it.

While outside counsel will do the investigative work, the Arizona investigation will be overseen by Brunn Roysden and O.H. Skinner, two assistant attorneys general in Brnovich’s office.

“Specifically, this matter relates to investigating [redacted] storage of consumer location, and other consumer tracking through smartphone operating systems, even when consumers turn off ‘location services’ and take other steps to stop such tracking,” the letter hiring Cooper & Kirk says. It has been redacted to omit the name of the target of the probe.

The scrutiny was triggered by an Associated Press story in August reporting that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store location data, even if users turned off location tracking. Computer-science researchers at Princeton have confirmed the AP’s findings.

Apple, maker of the iOS mobile operating system, is not a target of the Arizona probe, MLex has learned.

Prior to the AP story, the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and to Google-parent Alphabet CEO Larry Page in July to ask about the companies’ "representation of third-party access to consumer data, and the collection and use of audio recording data as well as location information via iPhone and Android devices".

The commerce committee has not yet made public Google’s answers. Apple released its answers to media outlets, including MLex.

Apple told the committee that when a user switches off location tracking, that data is not shared except in the case of an emergency, such as person dialing a 911 emergency call from an iPhone.

“If a user has iPhone Location Services turned off, then iPhone’s location information stays on the device and is shared only to aid response efforts in emergency situations,” said the Apple letter, which was signed by Timothy Powderly, director of federal government affairs for the iPhone-maker.

If Google were found to have violated the Consumer Fraud Act, it could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. That amount, multiplied by the number of Android phone users in a state with about 7 million residents, that could put a violator at risk for a very significant fine.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But Google responded to the AP story last month by saying it offers “robust controls so people can turn [location services] on or off, and delete their histories at any time."

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