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Report: Google’s City-Planning Subsidiary Will Sell Location Data for Millions of Smartphone Users

The Associated Press
Seth Wenig/AP
ROBERT KRAYCHIK

The Intercept reported on privacy concerns related to the collection and sale of identifiable location information collected from smartphone users by Google for Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s Parent company Alphabet. 

Sidewalk Labs sells location and movement information of mobile phone users — collected by Google — to city-planning agencies. It developed a program entitled “Replica,” which is marketed as a “next-generation urban planning tool.”

Nick Bowden, product lead for Sidewalk Labs, explained how Replica will provide civil engineers with “baseline travel measures,” including “the total number of people on a highway or local street network, what mode they’re using (car, transit, bike, or foot), and their trip purpose (commuting to work, going shopping, heading to school).”

The Intercept explained:

To make these measurements, the program gathers and de-identifies the location of cellphone users, which it obtains from unspecified third-party vendors. It then models this anonymized data in simulations — creating a synthetic population that faithfully replicates a city’s real-world patterns but that “obscures the real-world travel habits of individual people,” as Bowden told The Intercept.

Despite Sidewalk Labs’s description of its commodified user data as “de-identified,” the Intercept notes how travel patterns — specifically where one sleeps and works — can be used to identify users.

The Intercept noted:

Last month, the New York Times revealed how sensitive location data is harvested by third parties from our smartphones — often with weak or nonexistent consent provisions. A Motherboard investigation in early January further demonstrated how cell companies sell our locations to stalkers and bounty hunters willing to pay the price.

An Associated Press investigation showed that Google’s apps and website track people even after they have disabled the location history on their phones. Quartz found that Google was tracking Android users by collecting the addresses of nearby cellphone towers even if all location services were turned off. The company has also been caught using its Street View vehicles to collect the Wi-Fi location data from phones and computers.

Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Privacy, Technology, and Surveillance Project, told described Replica as “surveillance capitalism.”

Replica is a perfect example of surveillance capitalism, profiting from information collected from and about us as we use the products that have become a part of our lives,” said McPhail. “We need to start asking, as a society, if we are going to continue to allow business models that are built around exploiting our information without meaningful consent.”

In October of 2018, privacy expert Ann Couvakian quit the Google-owned Sidewalk Labs “smart city” project, citing fears of constant surveillance within the proposed city. She said, “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”

Last year, both Google and Amazon submitted patent applications related to further in-home monitoring users of their products and services.

Follow Robert Kraychik on Twitter.

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