Google Mobile

An idle Android smartphone sends user data back to Google servers nearly ten times more frequently as an Apple device sends data back to Apple servers.

This is just one of the many findings of a 55-page research paper published this week by research agency Digital Content Next. The research looked at what type of data is sent back to Google servers from idle Android devices.

The overall conclusion of the research is that Google tracks its users more often and collects more information about their movements and behavior when compared to Apple or to Google's ability to track users on Apple devices.

46% of all Google comms are with advertising services

For starters, researchers said that while a user interacts with a phone, 46% of all communications sent to Google servers were to Google's publisher and advertiser products, such as Google Analytics, DoubleClick, AdWords, and AdSense.

"Magnitude wise, Google's servers communicated 11.6 MB of data per day (or 0.35 GB/month) with the Android device," researchers said. "This experiment suggests that even if a user does not interact with any key Google applications, Google is still able to collect considerable information through its advertiser and publisher products."

But this is no groundbreaking discovery and is certainly no surprise. Tech-savvy users are already well aware that the vast majority of Google's revenue comes from its advertising business, hence, it was expected that its advertising and publisher services be well represented in any data collection scheme.

Research confirms recent Google location tracking scandal

The surprise comes when researchers recorded Google communications on an idle smartphone, left with no user interaction. The research team says that 35% of all the data requests sent back to Google servers from an idle Android device was location information.

Researchers said that a dormant, stationary Android phone with the Chrome browser active in the background, communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, at an average of 14 per hour.

This discovery is not that surprising when put into context with a recent investigation which revealed that Google continues to track users regardless if they disable "Location History" in their Google account backend.

Collection stats

But leaving location data aside, data collection on idle Android phones is still at huge levels. Researchers said that an idle Android smartphone running the Chrome browser in the background still sends Google servers nearly fifty times as many data requests per hour as an idle iOS phone running Safari.

Furthermore, users can't escape Google's tracking by using iOS devices with no Google apps installed on the device. This is because they will eventually run across one of Google's advertising services at one point or another.

"The number of times data is communicated to Google servers still remains surprisingly high," researchers said. "This communication is driven purely by advertiser/publisher services."

Deanonymizing users is possible

Moreover, even if most of the data Google collects about users is anonymized, researchers said that there are various details that Google accumulates from the same device that can deanonymize users.

For example, researchers said that advertising identifiers such as DoubleClick cookie IDs allow Google to track a user across web pages and apps, and associate "anonymous users" with known Google accounts.

"Overall, our findings indicate that Google has the ability to connect the anonymous data collected through passive means with the personal information of the user," researchers said.

"These results highlighted the fact that Android and Chrome platforms are critical vehicles for Google’s data collection. Again, these experiments were done on stationary phones with no user interactions. If you actually use your phone the information collection increases with Google."

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