Google's Android smartphones might know more about the people who use them than their friends and family.
Not only do the cell phones and their applications track customers' physical locations, but they store and transmit everything from sexual orientation to income, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by a Charleston attorney. The lawsuit alleges that Google and some smartphone apps then sell that information to advertising companies.
Local attorney Aaron Mayer represents three men, one in Florida and two in Texas, who learned from a Wall Street Journal report that their phones could collect and sell their personal information. Their case marks one of the first lawsuits nationally to take issue with Android's privacy concerns.
"If you're using a map application then yeah, it's going to get your location," Mayer said. "If you're using a map application and it's also collecting your gender, your sexual preference and your income, users don't think they're consenting to that."
Mayer, who filed his lawsuit in Florida, said that about 10 cases cropped up around the country in the wake of the news story and that all of those filings likely will be consolidated into a single case in California. Given that Android sold 67 million phones worldwide in 2010, the case could include tens of millions of customers, according to the lawsuit.
Mayer makes a case against Android's owner Google, Internet radio provider and Android app maker Pandora, and advertising companies AdMob and Traffic Marketplace. Google engineers the operating systems for many smart phone models and transmits information from the phones back to its databases, according to the lawsuit.
The court filing also alleges that Pandora, while merely providing music, collects location data and other information from phones and gives it directly to third parties. The lawsuit says Google and phone apps gather information even when people aren't using their phones, which they then share with marketing companies.
"Google, at the end of the day, is an advertising company," Mayer said.
Officials with Pandora and officials with Google, which also owns Ad Mob, said their companies do not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Traffic Marketplace said the company "does not collect or buy any personal data or information pertaining to mobile devices" and declined further comment.
Mayer said his clients would not have purchased Androids if they had known about the alleged information collection and sale. The lawsuit seeks compensation for the price of the phones and the value of the data collected from their users, plus punitive damages.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, recently sent a letter to the chief executive officers of Google and Apple, asking for clearer privacy policies in the online marketplaces where customers buy apps.
"Although I believe there is a greater need for transparency and disclosure for the collection and sharing of all personal information, at a minimum, I ask that you require all location-aware applications in your app stores to provide privacy policies that clearly specify what kind of location information is gathered from users, how that information is used, and how it is shared with third parties," Franken wrote.
Mayer said he expects the next six months to decide the path of his lawsuit moving forward. If the case progresses, other Android customers likely would receive notice of the lawsuit.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.
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