Difference between Google and Apple’s approach to mobile location data collection

After reading the transcripts of the testimony of Google’s Alan Davis and Apple’s Guy Tribble to US Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, I’ve got a better understanding of how Google and Apple approach mobile location and other device data collection.

From the transcripts it would seem that Google requires that during the installation process Android apps inform users of what data the app will have access to. What the user sees appears similar to the permissions screens you see when linking your Facebook account with a web site or other app. I expect tat most users never pay much attention to those screens. After install, the user is not prompted again about providing location data to the installed app nor can the user disable a particular app from accessing location data. Google depends on the “don’t be evil” mantra and is expecting app developers to play nice and Google takes no responsibility for what a user installed apps does.

When an Android application is not developed by Google, the application developer bears the responsibility for the design of the application, which includes responsibility for how the application collects and handles user data and the privacy disclosures made to users. If the user chooses to trust an application with location information by proceeding with the installation after viewing the location-related permissions, then that application could potentially store this location information on the device or transmit the information off the device if the application also has the Internet access permission. Google does not control the behavior of third party applications or how they handle location information and other user information that the third party application obtains from the device, even though Google strongly encourages application developers to use best practices as described in this Google blog post.

Contrast that with Apple’s approach on iOS. During installation, Apple does not require the app to warn the user about what data the app will access. However, once installed the app is forced to get the permission of the user to use the iOS device location information. The user can at any time disable that specific apps access via the iOS settings menu.

Apple requires express customer consent when any application requests location-based information for the first time. When an application requests the information, a dialog box appears stating: “[Application] would like to use your current location.” The customer is asked: “Don’t Allow” or “OK.” If the customer clicks on “Don’t Allow,” iOS will not provide any location-based information to the application. This dialog box is mandatory—neither Apple’s applications nor those of third parties are permitted to override the notification.

While I believe Apple when they say that iOS keep one year of information was a bug, I would like to see Apple adopt the installation warning system Android uses — maybe via the iTunes store description page — while keeping the granular permission model they already have in place.

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