Viewpoint: The government may not be the big 'G' playing the role of Big Brother

Tyrone Stewart

Another day, another week, another story about one of the internet’s duopoly and our data. This time round, it’s the turn of Google again. And we’re talking about location data.

So, apparently, according to an investigation conducted by the Associated Press (and confirmed by computer science researchers at Princeton University), Google tracks the locations of both Android and iOS users even when they switch off ‘Location Services’.

According to Google, “you can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored”. Now, this is true… to an extent.

What Google isn’t very clear or transparent about is that it continues to track users based on their ‘Web and App Activity’ setting, which is turned on for all by default and thus doesn’t obtain explicit consent to continue tracking people’s data. GDPR breach for all EU folks anyone?

Anyway, even with Location History disabled, the research found that opening Google’s Maps app stores a snapshot of where the user is and that daily weather updates on Android devices also hangs on to an approximate location of people. And, worse than these, searches without locations tied to them save accurate latitude and longitude data to people’s accounts.

It’s at this point I would like to direct you to my previous ‘Viewpoint’, where I called out international governments for the way they take advantage (or at least attempt to) of internet data for the constant surveillance of individuals. Here, I said that tech companies needed to do more to keep data out of the grubby mitts of governments.

Now, it seems these grubby mitts are worn just as freely by the tech companies that need to do more. The idea of ‘Big Brother’ clearly no longer only relates to being constantly watched by governments alone and it’s difficult to say where we go from here.

I akin the rivalry between tech giants and international governments to that of the ‘political horseshoe’ theory.

For those not read up on their political sciences, this theory suggests that the political spectrum is not a straight line and, as such, the far right and the far left have much more in common than political centre – each actually closely resembling each other, without ever meeting and being exactly the same, much like a horseshoe.

In the case of tech firms and governments, we can safely place them on opposite sides of a horseshoe for their often opposing views but clearly similar attitudes toward us poor, little civilians.  

Anyway, Google, as you’d expect, attempted to defend itself stating that it collects location data in a number of different ways in order to improve people’s experiences and that it provides “clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time”.

This is of course of an example of the tech giants chatting out of their rear ends because people are not given a choice beforehand about whether they want their history to be saved via Web and App Activity. Secondly, if you check the ‘Help’ section on Maps, it now tells users how to delete directions and places from their history – and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t there before (not that I ever checked or had a reason to).

So, yet again, we have one of the big boys of the tech industry taking advantage of our loyalty to their products. When will it all end? I suppose when the governments step in and regulate them. But, at this point, the government and the major tech platforms are really one and the same.