Google cuts some Android phone data for wireless carriers

A Google sign is seen during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. (Reuters/File)
Updated 19 August 2019

Google cuts some Android phone data for wireless carriers

  • Google’s move illustrates how concerned the company has become about drawing attention amid a heightened focus in much of the world on data privacy

SAN FRANCISCO: Alphabet Inc.’s Google has shut down a service it provided to wireless carriers globally that showed them weak spots in their network coverage, people familiar with the matter told Reuters, because of Google’s concerns that sharing data from users of its Android phone system might attract the scrutiny of users and regulators.

The withdrawal of the service, which has not been previously reported, has disappointed wireless carriers that used the data as part of their decision-making process on where to extend or upgrade their coverage. Even though the data were anonymous and the sharing of it has become commonplace, Google’s move illustrates how concerned the company has become about drawing attention amid a heightened focus in much of the world on data privacy.

Google’s Mobile Network Insights service, which had launched in March 2017, was essentially a map showing carriers’ signal strengths and connection speeds they were delivering in each area.

The service was provided free to carriers and vendors that helped them manage operations. The data came from devices running Google’s Android operating system, which is on about 75% of the world’s smartphones, making it a valuable resource for the industry.

It used data only from users who had opted into sharing location history and usage and diagnostics with Google. The data were aggregated, meaning they did not explicitly link any information to any individual phone user. It included data relating to a carrier’s own service and that of competitors, which were not identified by name. 

Nevertheless, Google shut down the service in April due to concerns about data privacy, four people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. Some of them said secondary reasons likely included challenges ensuring data quality and connectivity upgrades among carriers being slow to materialize.

Google spokeswoman Victoria Keough confirmed the move but declined to elaborate, saying only that changing “product priorities” were behind it. Google’s notice to carriers when it shut down the service did not specify a reason, two of the four people told Reuters.

“We worked on a program to help mobile partners improve their networks through aggregated and anonymized performance metrics,” Keough said. “We remain committed to improving network performance across our apps and services for users.”

Closer scrutiny

The loss of Google’s service is the latest example of an internet company opting to end a data-sharing service rather than risk a breach or further scrutiny from lawmakers. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, introduced last year, prohibits companies sharing user data with third parties without users’ explicit consent or a legitimate business reason.

US and European lawmakers have stepped up their focus on how tech companies treat user data after a series of large-scale data security failures and the revelation that Facebook Inc. improperly shared data on 87 million of its users with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Walking tightrope

Internet companies now walk a tightrope in trying to generate revenue or improve their services by supplying user data to other companies because they risk compromising — or appearing to compromise — data privacy. And companies including Google and Facebook have curtailed access to data by outside companies over the past two years.

Google’s Mobile Network Insights service was not the only source of detailed customer data used by carriers to determine where cell tower upgrades are needed, but it was useful because of the sheer volume of Android phones in the market.

It was an “independent reference from the horse’s mouth, so you couldn’t get any better than this,” said Mushil Mustafa, a former employee at Dubai-based carrier du. “But the carriers have investment in other tools, obviously.”


Vietnam’s social media crowd swells with new entrant to take on Facebook, Google

Updated 17 September 2019

Vietnam’s social media crowd swells with new entrant to take on Facebook, Google

  • Lotus received 700 billion dong ($30.14 million) in funding from tech corporation VCCorp
  • ‘Lotus was born not to compete with Facebook or any other social networks’

HANOI: A new social network has entered the already crowded field in Vietnam as the communist party squeezes US tech giants Facebook and Google with a new cybersecurity law.
Lotus, a social network that allows users to create content and share posts to a home page, had received 700 billion dong ($30.14 million) in funding from tech corporation VCCorp. and hoped to raise another 500 billion dong, company General Director Nguyen The Tan said at the launch ceremony.
“Lotus was born not to compete with Facebook or any other social networks,” Tan said late on Monday. “We will focus on content and content creation.”
Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung, who was at the launch, has urged Vietnamese companies to create viable domestic alternatives to foreign social media platforms which are more difficult for the government to control.
Last month, a Facebook-style app, Gapo, also made its debut. Older domestic social platforms such as VietnamTa and Hahalolo have struggled to build large user bases.
Hung said he hoped that eventually the number of Vietnamese people using domestic social networks would be as high as the number using foreign platforms.
There were 58 million Facebook users and 62 million Google accounts in Vietnam as of August, government data showed. There are no comparable figures for domestic networks.
Despite economic liberalization and increasing openness to social change since the 1990s, the ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and does not tolerate dissent.
Several activists and dissidents have been arrested or jailed for posting online content considered to be “anti-state.”
Vietnam has tightened Internet rules over the past few years, culminating in a cybersecurity law which came into effect in January requiring foreign companies like Facebook to set up local offices and store data in the country.