Google Gave Location Data Tracking For 300 Million Users To Science

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Google may end up in hot water with the US government all over again, following reports that it gave out users’ location data tracking information without their knowledge. Specifically, the company handed over around 300-million users’ data to a group of scientists conducting a study aggregated from smartphones and “covering nearly all countries and 65% of Earth’s populated surface.”

That’s according to the study itself, published in May and based on data collected before the advent of widespread lockdowns.

The study was led by Robert C. Reiner Jr, John S. Brownstein, and Moritz U. G. Kraemer and published in Nature Human Behaviour under the title Mapping global variation in human mobility. As that title implies, the scientists were looking into how people tend to move around.


To accomplish that, they ran the data through AI-based algorithms that examined when people took “trips.”

The system identified trips by signals such as the timing of location points, “dwell times,” and other factors. The scientists indicate that, for example, the data examination included “stops at airports and other locations on a multi-stop international itinerary.”

This likely isn’t the full extent of sharing with scientists

Now, Google has repeatedly claimed not to store or track location data for users who aren’t aware of it. That is users who have opted to have location tracked rather than turning it off — simultaneously turning off select features. So there’s a good chance that the location data used here belonged to users who had willingly left location data tracking turned on or opted in.


But that’s not the only data the company has been accused of keeping tabs on. In fact, in addition to previous suits brought against Google, the company is now being sued for alleged tracking of user activity in its Chrome browser’s incognito mode. That lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday, June 2, by Mark C. Mao. Mr. Mao is a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner.

It could ultimately cost the company as much as $5 Billion.

Previous filings and widespread reports, centered more precisely on location data tracking have plagued the company too. So it’s not unlikely that other groups have been granted access too. And it isn’t immediately clear whether those groups’ intentions were quite as above-board. Or whether the trend would pertain solely to location data. But since the company did not inform users of its use here, that could end up causing further legal issues in the future.


So what findings did the Google Data Tracking help reveal?

Looking past intentions and the possibility that other user data has been handed over, the data does seem to have led to some interesting results. According to the associated scientists, they were able to make some determinations regarding which borders are the busiest and how weather and other patterns affect travel.

In some cases, those findings acted more as confirmations for what might otherwise simply be known solely via ‘common sense’. For instance, the border between the US and Mexico is one of the busiest while restrictive borders such as those between Turkey and Armenia, Morocco and Algeria, and Israel and the Gaza, saw relatively low traffic.

Conversely, people are most active in terms of travel and related movement in July and August. That indicates that daylight patterns and weather greatly affect movement. Peak movement times also coincide with national or religious holidays. And people travel and move around, in general, a lot less in colder months and those where there aren’t any major events or holidays. January saw the least movement overall.