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Android sucks 10x more data than iPhone

A week or so ago, a paper was published outlining just how much — and how frequently — Google collects our personal data through devices running Android and Chrome.

Don't want to read? Just hit play on the video above. (And subscribe to get more.)

It was written by Douglas C. Schmidt, Professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt University, who my colleague, Jerry Hildenbrand of Android Central said is:

... very well-versed in Android.

The Google distortion field

The paper is framed as follows:

While the public has been focused on the ongoing Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google has largely avoided public scrutiny about its data collection practices despite having the ability to collect far more personal data about consumers across a variety of touchpoints.

Google enjoys a reality distortion field beyond what even Steve Jobs was attributed with at the hight of his product marketing prowess. When Jobs took to stage or to comment, there was never any lack pushback by tech press and pundits who just didn't like what he was selling. Especially open source advocates who, Mach Kernels and WebKit frameworks aside, didn't like how controlling or proprietary Apple was with the vast majority of its products.

Google, though, has always enjoyed an incredible benefit of the doubt. Even the staunchest, hippiest, most neck-bearded nerds on the net seem happy enough to ignore the massive proprietary product stack of everything from Search to AdSense to Play Services, because the Android Open Source Project could, theoretically, be built into a functional phone by Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, or, you know, a real person with similar skills and resources.

I'm not saying Google's reality distortion field should be pointed out more than Apple's or anyone else's. I'm just saying they should all be pointed out, always.

Not tracking... Just kidding!

There have been efforts to document individual practices by Google such as their efforts to circumvent controls on Safari.  More recently, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Google continues to track location data even after a consumer has turned off the setting. 

I've turned off tracking and other data collection what feels like a dozen times on a dozen different settings pages and devices and, whenever a new one is linked, I go there and somehow still find all the tracking turned on. It's like Google honors privacy requests about as often as Apple puts it's products on deep discount.

While these research efforts have been important to the public policy dialogue, no research exists which looks at the breadth and depth of data collected by Google.

So, that's what Schmidt set out to do. Now, as to what he found, here, again, is my colleague from Android Central, Jerry Hildenbrand:

I've read the report and think it's well written, impeccably sourced, and factually sound. In other words, what Dr. Schmidt (no relation to former Google exec Eric Schmidt) says is absolutely true in my opinion.

The truth about Google data collection

And that truth?

  • An Android Phone running Chrome, even if it's just sitting on a table and no one is using it, will send Google location information, on average, 14 times an hour — 340 times a day.
  • By comparison, an iPhone running Safari, also just sitting on a table not being used, couldn't collect any data for Google unless or until you picked it up and started using Google apps and services.
  • That Android Phone, just sitting there alone on the table, communicates with Google 10x more than that iPhone sitting alone on the table does Apple.
  • A major part of Google's data collection occurs when the user isn't directly engaging with any of its products, and that's significant given how many people have Android devices running Google software and services on them all the time.
  • Google can associate the passive, anonymous data it collects this way with your personal information, largely through advertising technologies that Google controls. Likewise, it can associate quote-unquote anonymous advertising identifiers accumulated from third-party websites, through the device-level data collected via Android.

Back to Jerry:

I hate the amount of data Google collects from me. Full stop. I think it's insane what they harvest as well as how they harvest it. But I love what they do with it.

Why people use Google

There seems to be three broad groups of reactions to the amount of data Google, and, sure, Facebook, collect about us:

  1. People who just don't understand or don't care. Free services. Take my data. Suckers.
  2. People who understand what they're paying in data but feel like what they're getting in return is worth it. Free-as-in-Google. Fair deal.
  3. People who believe their data is too valuable or privacy too important to give away just to get some dopy internet services. What are all you people on?

See, data is the great equalizer. Everyone has different amounts of money and time, but we all have roughly the same amount of personal data. We're all data rich. So, paying with data often seems as trivial to us as buying a $25,000 item of clothing or plane ticket must feel to an oligarch or pop star.

Unless and until a time comes when a small sampling can be projected out across a lifetime, and the big internet companies decide we have to do more for them to keep getting our services fix, we're all benefitting from the data mining gold rush. We're all information billionaires.

The cost of free

But what does that make the big internet companies? What does that make Facebook, and, yeah, throw Amazon in there too, and, in this case, Google?

Jerry:

Google collecting data helps improve the company's bottom line. Google is not a smartphone company or even a search company. It is an online advertising company, one that happens to employ talented people who build amazing products and services that most everyone loves. Google collecting user data means you can get travel information and see which bar is the best and know if you should take a surfboard or rain jacket when you visit Hatteras next weekend. This isn't a case where some folks down the street are keeping tabs on you — it's a giant company collecting anonymized user data and having computer algorithms sort through it. There is nobody at Google who has a job reading your browser history. Nobody wants to have a job reading your browser history.

My main concern here is that we know from history what people want and what happens are two different things.

Both idiocy and accidents happen. Look no further than Google's ill-fated social platform, Buzz, which, at launch, stupefyingly disclosed contact and location data, including to abusers about their past victims.

We've also seen everyone from government agencies to private companies improperly, even illegally, snoop and spy on everyone from exes to celebrities using the data that's been collected.

Google's gotten a lot smarter since Buzz, sure, and has protections In place to prevent abuse, fine. But as long as they're collecting and keeping that data, we're only ever one accident, idiocy, or one well-placed bad actor away from breach or violation.

Earlier this year we saw Google's own employees take them to task over a deal to sell AI to the military for drone use. AI, almost certainly, trained using our data.

Does it have to be this way? No. There are techniques that can be used to destroy enough data prior to storage to ensure a much greater degree of anonimity. Apple, for example, is deleting start and end points from navigation, then segmenting the trip, then only keeping random segments from the trip. That way, there's literally no data of where you began, where you ended up, or everywhere you went along the way. But, there's still enough data to analyze traffic flow in aggregate. It's just more work.

On Star Trek and Mirror Universes

It's often said that Google wants to build the Star Trek computer. A system so powerful and all-knowing that you can ask it anything, at any time, and get a useful answer. And that the best or easiest or most efficient or whatever way they could figure out to fund it was advertising and feed it was to make things that looked like gadgets — Android and Chromebooks — but were really giant harvesting machines.

Once upon a time, my then single-digit-year-old godson got a Google account and Chromebook for school and, when I saw him, all he could do was tell me how cool it was that Google offered to let him play a Pac Man style game but on a map of his own street so he could chomp all his neighbor's houses, and while he smiled and giggled, all I could think of was the candy-coated permission dialog box they'd given him to grant them perpetual access to location data… for a child. And that they now knew where he lived and could tie all of that back to him for the rest of his school and subsequent life.

Because, every time Google or someone says anonymized, and they're not literally destroying data prior to collection to ensure it, you know it's not really true. As the paper points out, there are simply too many signals for all of this data to not be pattern matched back to you, me, and yeah, our kids.

Maybe I'm beyond ridiculous for thinking this way. Maybe no one cares. Privacy is dead. And, as long as they're going to take your data, you should make sure you get the best services possible while they're doing it. You know, make sure you're good and drunk first.

In Star Trek, no one seems to care that the computer can tell people where they are at any time, even give their vital signs, even if they're embarrassingly elevated on the Holodeck. Seriously?

But that computer isn't run by a private company. It's, fictiously, run by a planetary and multi-planetary federation. And the people in Star Fleet are in Star Fleet, not private citizens.

And, even in Star Trek, we're only ever one mirror universe blink away from that same computer that knows where and how we are, being used to burn us down at the touch of a button.

Do you even Google?

I'm not saying you should delete Google, though you certainly can if you want to and I'll do a video with viable alternatives soon. But I'm saying, especially if you're concerned about Facebook, you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking Google is different in kind. They've simply enjoyed better PR so far.

I'm also not saying Google is biased. It's only ever and always biased towards Google. It doesn't care about our petty language or politics or religion or whether we prefer Coke to Pepsi or Marvel to DC. It wants all of us. All our data. The more and wider the better.

I'm just saying be aware. Understand what it is you're paying to use services you think might be free and open, you know, like a trap. And then make the best, most informed decision for you.

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Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

30 Comments
  • "The Cost of Free" Those words describe the whole issue in a nutshell. Nothing is free. Nothing has ever been free. Are you willing to pay the price is the only question you need to answer.
  • Oh, freedom's just another word, for nuthin' left to loose. And nothin' it aint' worth nuthin' but it's free.....
  • I enjoy reading these articles, but they make me terribly conflicted. I am aware what Google is doing, but I honestly have a hard time figuring out whether I care enough to not use their products...anyone else in the same boat?
  • Yea (more words to comply with the arbitrary requirement for 3 words minimum)
  • The thing is, as soon as everyone moves to another service, they'll start doing the same thing., businesses have to make money. The only way you would really protect your privacy, is by only signing up to paid services
  • I've often wondered when people will wake up to what advertising companies like Google and Facebook are doing. The fact is, even as stories are broken such as the recent Facebook blunder, it becomes clear that most people simply don't care. Those who do care are not using their services.
  • The headline is 5 words longer than it needs to be.
  • Geezus, Rene .. Jerry's article must've really got you flustered. You're all over the place with this one. Star Trek... Really? You want to make a care using the fictional Star Trek as a point of reference? smh.
  • What's wrong with a Star Trek reference to add a bit of character to an article?
  • You mean besides the fact that it's a fictional world?? Gracious, Danny ... "In Star Trek, no one seems to care that the computer can tell people where they are at any time, even give their vital signs, even if they're embarrassingly elevated on the Holodeck. Seriously?" NO!! Not seriously! What is he even talking about with this?? What does any of this have to do with Google or Android or Apple or real life at all? A whole section of this ridiculous tripe at that.
  • Obviously it's a fictional world, but he's relating it to the collection of data done by Apple/Google to provide these services. In Star Trek, the computer would have to had collected data from each person to know this information, which is exactly what Google/Apple do.
  • Stop. Just, stop. It's fiction!! There is ZERO correlation between Star Trek and the real world outside of Gene Roddenberry's real imagination. I swear, Rene could write that leprechauns and the banking clan from Star Wars have a correlation to the global financial crisis of 2008 and you'd actually say it's true.
  • So companies collecting information, is fiction? Who sounds crazy now?
  • That's because Danny IS Rene.
  • I'd get MythBusters on that one
  • So where is the link to this paper? It's odd Rene you should write an article about it, and not provide a link to it. Did he actually read it or is he just selectively quoting from Jerry Hildenbrand's article in Android Central. Jerry did actually read it, and wrote about it in a far more balanced way than this predictable anti-Google tirade from Rene. Here are some of the points Jerry made that Rene somehow didn't think were appropriate to include. * Frequency of data transfer is not equal to the amount of data transferred. 10 times as often is not 10 times as much.
    * Users on iOS also see background data being transferred on average of 10 times per hour (compared to 40 times per hour on Android).
    * You agreed to this data transfer when you installed Chrome (on iOS) or first used Chrome on your Android phone.
    * Dr. Schmidt's paper wasn't about privacy violations, it was about data transfers. Jerry, who admits a strong dislike for the amount of data that Google collects, also writes: But what we all get in return for that data can't be ignored in any discussion about how or how much of it is going to Google. Apple wins the contest of transferring data less frequently in almost all areas, but it also wins the prize for last place in usefulness when it comes to Siri or Apple Music recommendations. These two things go hand in hand and is why iPhone users install and love Google's services.
  • Now we all know Rene has zero interest in any level of professional integrity with his brand of journalism. Case in point.. Rene wrote his initial article, which was completely different, on this topic with this very headline last week. I want to say within a day of the 23rd. I, and a number of others, even commented on that very piece. Now Jerry's reply piece was published on the 25th. That article provides a reference link to Rene's initial article... or at least it did. However, if you go to Jerry's article now and click on that very link, it takes you here. Someone, I'll leave it to you to guess who, deleted that entire initial article, comment section and all, as though it never existed and replaced it with this piece of work as the initial piece. The magic of the FUD machine on full tilt.
  • FUD it is, as Rene likes to do by taking any anti-Google thing he finds and cherry-picking the juicy bits. Journalistic integrity be damned. I guess that I personally fall into Rene's second category of Google users. I understand what they are doing and accept it in return for the services. I don't like being tracked across the Internet, and use both tracking and ad blockers in my browser. I don't have a problem however with mobile device location tracking and don't see that as a much of a privacy violation. The benefits of location-aware apps make it worth it, and my browsable location history is occasionally useful. Cell phone companies have the ability to track your location too, even with a dumb phone. If you really don't want your location tracked, don't carry a mobile phone. Some information about myself, like medical history, I do consider private as that can have real life consequences for insurance and employment. Being shown creepily relevant advertising is not so threatening. The idea of a free service supported by advertising has been around for a long time, starting radio and TV. Google and Facebook did not come up with that idea. iMore itself is a free service supported by advertising. This website complains that I use an ad blocker and wants me to turn it off. A look at its code shows that it uses Google Analytics, Facebook trackers and various ad networks. I don't understand how Rene can be a part of it.
  • Indeed. If someone doesn't know that Google collects user data, and all tech companies collect different degrees of user data btw, then they just don't want or care to know. You're right also that advertising revenue model has existed for many generations, even before Google existed. All sorts of media have used that model; Newspapers, magazines, radio and television off the top of my head, and yet the sun continues to rise in the east. Doomsday averted, it seems. I want my tech to be as personalized and curated to my life as possible. Google collects my user data and gives me that as close as today's technology will allow. I actually would like that EVERY advertisement and marketing effort that I come in contact with, even a billboard, would be specifically curated to me instead of the general public.
  • You're Star Trek analogy is utterly, utterly flawed. Not as flawed as your entire reasoning in the article of course, but flawed nevertheless. Thanks for this rant though, very amusing.
  • The whole article is just ridiculous. "Earlier this year we saw Google's own employees take them to task over a deal to sell AI to the military for drone use. AI, almost certainly, trained using our data." I mean, this is just ill-informed. From the fact that Google didn't sell the AI; it is open sourced and Google was contracted for tech support. Another company will just take over that role in 2019. To the fact that data being analyzed is captured by the DoD and has nothing to do with Google's user data. https://dod.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1356172/project-maven-indus...
  • Can you explain which part of the Star Trek analogy is flawed?
  • The part where Dannyjjk wasn’t “zucked” by Rene inside Holodeck
  • The best part about a comment like yours, is that you don't answer my question because you can't provide a valid response
  • Rene compares Google's alleged thirst for data omniscience to the computer in Star Trek. The computer that all of the Trek captains rely upon to impart essential knowledge upon any crisis, help them navigate the cosmos, give them the ingredients for an obscure alien beverage... I'd be surprised if anyone watched Star Trek and quaked at the thought of a such an invaluable resource, and there isn't a Mirror version of the computer that is evil (at least not in the TV or film, I haven't delved in the canon beyond that). So the analogy is flawed because Rene is suggesting that Google striving to be the computer (which lets face it, it isn't anyway) is a bad thing, when any Trekkie knows that the computer is ace (and was married to the show's creator).
  • I personally don't believe it's a bad thing in general, I think all this data is collected to provide the best experience for each user individually, and I believe that in some scenarios, Google does provide better information than Apple, due to the fact that they collect more data. But obviously there will be people who are worried about how much information is collected, which I guess is the target audience for this article.
  • I agree. However in this instance Rene is spreading FUD, which is something he proclaims he is a crusader against.
  • Pretty much every single part of what he describes the Mirror Universe as being, unless there's a canonical episode that I missed where the Terran Empire are monitoring what drinks people buy at Quark's and using the information to send them some ads about Romulan Ale.
  • I really hate the whole iOS vs. Android thing. Nearly everyone already knows that Google collects their data and accepts that as the price for free. You can set your privacy settings and take steps to limit this as much as possible. BTW iMore also targets ads at you just as a fyi.
  • It does make me laugh, iMore have told us how to use ad blockers and protect our privacy, whilst providing ads themselves, and also telling us not to use an adblocker on their own site… 🤯