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Google stops sharing Android user data that helped carriers plan coverage

Google stops sharing Android user data that helped carriers plan coverage


The Mobile Network Insights was meant to help carriers plan upgrades

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google is ending a service that saw it share Android data with wireless carriers globally to help them better understand the network coverage they provided, the company has confirmed. Reuters reports that the Mobile Network Insights service, which Google launched in 2017 but which has gone largely unnoticed until now, was meant to help carriers plan or upgrade their wireless networks by showing them signal strengths and connection speeds in their coverage areas. However, the company has now decided to end the free service offering, reportedly due to fears that it could attract the scrutiny of users and regulators.

It’s notable that Google has taken the decision to shut down the service, rather than risk it causing the company a scandal. Google is currently facing its first GDPR probe from regulators as the EU data privacy legislation enters its second year, and there are also calls for new data privacy regulations in the US. The data practices of the big tech companies are being put under a microscope, and Google appears to be examining its own behavior internally before regulators do.

Facebook has a similar service, called “Actionable Insights”

Location data, in particular, has been a fraught topic over the last couple of years after it emerged that US networks were sharing real-time location data with third-parties. Google has also been hit with its own location data scandal after it emerged that the company still tracks users even when they turn off the Location History feature.

Google had attempted to design its Mobile Network Insights service with an eye towards user privacy. Users had to opt in to sharing Location History and usage and diagnostic data with Google, and this data was aggregated before being provided to carriers, meaning they would be unable to link the data with individual users. These concessions do not appear to have been enough to convince Google to continue to provide the service.

According to Reuters, there were other reasons for Google to shut down the service beyond data privacy. For starters, the company reportedly had problems maintaining data quality, and there were also concerns that carriers were taking too long to upgrade their networks with the data that was provided to them. Google did not explicitly confirm to Retuers why it ended the service, but a spokesperson pointed towards changing “product priorities” at the company.

Using the service, carriers were reportedly provided a coverage map that allowed them to see real-world data about devices accessing their networks including signal strength and speed, in addition to details about (unnamed) competitor’s networks. The sheer number of Android devices worldwide made this an incredibly valuable source of information, although one expert quoted by Reuters notes that carriers also have other tools that offer similar information.

Google is not the only company to share coverage data with carriers. Facebook’s “Actionable Insights” service, which it launched this time last year, shares similar connectivity data with around 100 different carriers in 50 countries around the world, according to a report published earlier this year in The Intercept. However, it sounds like Facebook’s data sharing goes even further than Google’s, since it also includes demographic data and personal interests.

When contacted for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told Reuters that “[Facebook has] publicly announced this program and carefully designed it to protect people’s privacy.” But if Google’s hunch about regulator’s attitudes towards services like these is accurate, then Facebook’s program could be facing its own scrutiny soon enough.