A few days ago, two women from Oakland sued Google for tracking their location using Android Smartphone although Google said users can opt-out of “location services” when set up their Android devicess. However, there is more than one way Google can spy on us. The question is however, as an individual, how do you know if the big brother is spying on you?
In order to answer this question, we need to know how Google collects our location data and what data they store.
How Google collects location data?
There are a few ways Google could know our locations. If you have an Android phone, Google definitely knows where you live and where you have been. If you have iPhone or Symbian mobile device or other Smartphone but have Google Maps installed, Google knows where you are and places you visited. Even if you do not use mobile devices or Google Maps, Google still knows where you live if you have a wireless router or use their browser Chrome. As matter of fact, as long as you use the internet, you could not avoid Google. The truth is, Google is everywhere and we can hardly live without Google’s presence online.
1 Google street view cars collects data about our WiFi access points and cell sites. If you ever see Google Street view car around, your Wireless router or nearby cell sites could be recorded by Google. Although Google stopped this operation under pressure, they have collected a huge load of information about us.
2 Google Maps or Android phone record our location data. Ever since Google stopped using street view cars to collect our location data, they started using Google Maps and Android phones which come with many Google products to do so. It’s said that Google Maps for Android has been downloaded more than 50 million times, not to mention other mobile platforms. So Google Maps is an ideal tool to collect users’ data.
3 Google Chrome is watching us as well. Chrome has a 12% share of the browser market, following IE’s 45% and Firefox’s 30%. With such a huge user base, Google could easily record and store our location data. In fact, Google can use its other products like Gmail, Analytics and Adsense to get user information as well.
What data do they collect?
Well it’s hard to know as Google did not reveal any details. However, Google did say all the data collected are anonymous. As far as location data are concerned, it could include latitude, longitude, altitude, speed, address, city, country, postcode, MAC address, CellID, location area code (LAC), IP address etc.
All these data collected are then sent to their location servers for processing to provide location based services.
How do we know if Google is watching us?
Now this question is easier to answer as we know what information they collect and how. Since Google stores all the location data in their servers and they provide API for us to access them, we simply need to send queries to their server. If it returns our location, then we are being watched. If not, we are not exposed to Google.
I have developed a few tools which you can find in navigation bar to query Google’s location server. You can use these trackers to search your CellID, LAC, MAC address and IP address in their server. If you are being tracked, you will see your location returned and showed on Google Maps. Otherwise, Google is not spying on you.