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Google bans tracking tool that sold users’ location data

Google bans tracking tool that sold users’ location data


SafeGraph offered data for COVID-19 tracking

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google has banned a company that sold Android users’ location data for COVID-19 mapping and other purposes, Motherboard reports. SafeGraph was one of several companies that collected geolocation records through plug-ins in other Android apps, then aggregated it for organizations including The New York Times and Centers for Disease Control.

According to Motherboard, Google told developers in June that they had to remove SafeGraph’s software development kit within seven days. Motherboard says it’s not clear whether SafeGraph is still collecting any data from Android apps, and The Verge has reached out to Google and SafeGraph to confirm.

SafeGraph’s ban follows an earlier crackdown on location-collecting apps. In December 2020, Google and Apple banned a similar service called X-Mode Social, which reportedly worked with the US military among other customers. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on its policy around SafeGraph.

SafeGraph data is supposed to be anonymized, but as Motherboard discusses, location datasets can often reveal details about individuals despite these safeguards. And although users must approve location-gathering by individual apps, many aren’t aware of how their information is being used.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a frequent critic of location-gathering apps (and sponsor of a bill that would restrict their use by law enforcement) offered both praise and criticism of the move to ban the service. “This is the right move by Google, but they and Apple need to do more than play whack-a-mole with apps that sell Americans’ location information. These companies need a real plan to protect users’ privacy and safety from these malicious apps,” he said in a statement to The Verge.