The US Congress has issued an open letter asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to explain in detail why his company keeps a database of the precise location information of hundreds of millions of consumers.
Sensorvault, as it is referred to internally, is a database that Google maintains to improve its offerings (serve better ads, provide accurate location services, etc.), but also to help police in criminal investigations. The data arrives at Google in the form of latitude and longitude with a high degree of accuracy, and continuously tracks users’ whereabouts.
However, as the New York Times reported recently, the police have wrongly used this data to jail innocents. The letter to Google’s CEO is therefore well timed.
Citing media reports – the NYT piece likely among them – Congress states that “Google collects precise location information in numerous ways including from the location history function on Android phones, Google searches, and Google apps that have location enabled.”
“Second, precise location information is reportedly collected even when people are not making calls or using apps, which enables Google to track the ‘whole pattern of life’ of an individual.”
“Finally,” the letter continues, “Google reportedly never destroys any of the precise location information it captures in the Sensorvault database, and has therefore compiled an extraordinarily detailed picture of the movements and whereabouts of a vast number of consumers stretching back more than a decade.”
The letter asks Pichai things like:
- What information does Google store in Sensorvault and for what purposes?
- Who has access and / or uses the data, including affiliates and subsidiaries?
- Does Google maintain adjacent databases with similar purposes?
- What are the sources (apps, services) from which Google collects the information maintained in Sensorvault?
- Is location data sent to Sensorvault by default by every Android handset or does the user have to opt in?
- Do users have any control over this aspect of Google’s services?
- Can users opt out? (i.e. deny Google the ability to track their location for Sensorvault’s intended purposes)
- How accurate is Google’s location tracking?
… and the list goes on.
Pichai has until May 7 to provide the written responses requested. Congress also asks the Google chief to make arrangements to brief the Committee staff on the topics no later than May 10. Readers can access the open letter here.