For once, Google is putting an end to a data collection practice before it attracts closer inspection from lawmakers and regulators.
Reuters is reporting that Google has shut down its Mobile Network Insights service over fears that “sharing data from users of its Android phone system might attract the scrutiny of users and regulators.”
The service — which is offered to wireless carriers across the world — was essentially a map of signal strengths and connection speeds, and was meant to identify weak spots in their network coverage.
Google’s privacy dilemma
The search giant launched the service in March 2017, but is said to have shut it down earlier this April. The data for Mobile Network Insights came from users of Android phones, who had agreed to share their “location history and usage and diagnostics with Google.”
While this data was anonymized and aggregated, the company pulled the plug citing data privacy concerns.
Google’s shutting down of the service has “disappointed wireless carriers that used the data as part of their decision-making process on where to extend or upgrade their coverage,” the report adds.
It’s not immediately clear if Google has alternative plans in place, but the company said, “We remain committed to improving network performance across our apps and services for users.”
The development comes as Silicon Valley tech majors are increasingly under regulatory spotlight for their data collection and sharing practices. It could also have been necessitated in part by stringent EU GDPR regulations, which mandate that companies seek explicit users’ consent before processing their data.
The need for transparency
The fact that Google has preemptively decided to end a practice is a consequence of a string of privacy missteps and data scandals that have plagued big tech in recent years.
Over the past few months, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook were all found to use human contractors to quietly listen to conversations recorded by their products with an intent to improve software quality. While there is inherently nothing wrong with the approach, none of the companies clearly disclosed this was indeed happening.
Viewed through this lens, the data minimization effort is only a start. Because if there is one thing behavioural research has repeatedly shown, it’s that consumers rarely change their default settings.
Whether be it phones or laptops, or any online service, the truth is that 95 percent of people don’t change a thing — meaning what Google decides to turn on or off will have huge privacy ramifications.
Which is why the company’s decision to end the service is a step in the right direction. It’s high time we deserve a platform that takes privacy seriously and encodes it into their design in a manner that instills transparency and trust.