By J. D. Heyes
A freshman Republican senator lambasted Google on Tuesday for invading users’ privacy by tracking them and building profiles on them that the tech giant later seeks to monetize, and all without their consent or ability to opt out.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), grilled Will DeVries, senior privacy counsel for Google, on Tuesday as he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing on data privacy. Hawley accused the tech behemoth of tracking users of its Android cellphones, collecting all kinds of data on them, and accusing the company of continuing to track users even if “tracking services” has been disabled.
“I’m concerned about the implicit bargain that consumers are being asked to ratify by which they get supposedly free services but actually have enormous amounts of personal data extracted from them without knowing what is going on,” Hawley said.
The GOP lawmaker went on to question DeVries’ opening statement in which he claimed that Google’s “flagship products” have been free-of-charge for more than 20 years and that the tech giant ‘clearly’ explains how it makes money and uses personal information.
“Is that really true?” Hawley asked, pointing specifically to Google’s Android phones and tracking services. Supposedly, according to Google, users can simply turn off tracking services, but Hawley — who sued Google as Missouri attorney general over alleged anti-trust law violations before beating incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November.
“Do you think the average consumer would be surprised to learn that her location is recorded and sent to Google hundreds of times every day, even when she is not using her phone?” he asked.
DeVries said that Google “takes as strong an effort as possible to explain these things clearly.”
“I understand it’s complicated, the way a mobile phone works,” he added.
Hawley said that even when Android consumers aren’t using their phones, information about their geolocation is updated every four minutes, or 14 times an hour and roughly 340 times per 24-hour period. “That’s without use of the phone,” he said. “Do you think she’d be surprised to learn that?”
DeVries said that gathering location data is “what makes maps work, what makes routing of calls work,” and other functions. He added that Android-powered phones come with a “location history” function in which Google collects geolocation information when it’s activated, but that users can opt out.
Hawley disputed that, arguing that Google continues to collect geolocation histories even when the function is off, which DeVries, on the record, admitted is true — but that in doing so, Google provides “value back to the consumer.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the committee chairman, interjected, calling DeVries’ revelation “fascinating.”
“What value are you talking about?” Graham asked.
“So, in order to, say, make [Google] Maps work, to be able to locate you, give you directions where you need to go, Maps needs to know where you are,” he said.
“The phone’s off,” Graham interjected.
Hawley’s history of taking on big tech extends beyond his tenure as Missouri’s attorney general. On Monday, he criticized the Federal Trade Commission over the agency’s response to privacy scandals at Google and Facebook, describing them as “toothless.”
“Any robust definition of consumer welfare must acknowledge that [Google and Facebook] have harmed consumers by conditioning participation … on giving away enormous — and growing — amounts of personal information,” Hawley wrote. “Yet the approach the FTC has taken on these issues has been toothless.”
Hawley also forced DeVries to admit that Google uses location information it isn’t supposed to be collecting to direct ads to users as well.
“I think when somebody turns off their user information, their location history, they expect the location tracking to be off,” Hawley noted. “But it’s not. They don’t have a way, apparently, to turn it off.”