Google allowing Android app vendors to illegally collect user data, lawsuit alleges

Complaint, filed recently in California, is amended version of an earlier lawsuit against the company

Several users of devices running Google's Android operating system have filed an amended version of an earlier lawsuit accusing the company of illegally collecting, and allowing others to collect, extensive amounts of mobile user data without proper notice or consent.

The lawsuit, filed last week in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, is an updated version of a consolidated lawsuit from January 2012. It alleged that Google's actions had harmed the privacy, security and financial interests of the six named plaintiffs in the case.

US District Court Judge Jeffrey White, who reviewed the original complaint from last year, had rejected it this March.

In his ruling, the judge noted that the plaintiffs had failed to clearly state how Google's actions had caused injury to them as defined under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the California Unfair Competition Law and a handful of other state statutes. Judge White had offered the plaintiffs an opportunity to file an amended complaint if they chose to do so.

Last week's second complaint addresses the shortcoming identified by the judge the first time around said William Audet, interim class counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.

"Pursuant to the Court's order, the plaintiffs have added additional facts on a number of issues," Audet said.

"The second amended complaint also provides additional facts regarding recent disclosures of continued alleged privacy violations by Google, including the sharing of data without the full consent or knowledge of the consumer," he said. "We believe that the complaint now addresses all the issues raised by the court and we are now focused on two violations -- one federal and one state -- committed by Google."

According to Audet, the ultimate goal in filing the lawsuit is to get Google to provide full disclosure of its own data collection practices and that of Android application developers who are approved to distribute their products through Google's application store. "We are alleging that the company is participating in the collection of private data in exchange for the use of applications by the consumer."

The 36-page complaint filed last week accuses Google of putting hooks in its Android operating system that allow third-party application developers to collect a extensive of range of data about mobile users and their devices. The complaint accuses Google of allowing third-party application developers to collect geo-location data, user age and gender, zip codes, user activity, device IDs and other personally identifying information from Android-powered mobile devices.

"People don't know how much data they are giving up when they download these applications for free," Audet said. He added that it is Google's responsibility to ensure that applications made available through its mobile application store are not illegally collecting and sharing user data.

Google's own privacy policies do not inform users of the extensive data collection practices of Android mobile application providers, he said. Often, users download these applications based on Google's representations in its privacy polices and its terms of service agreements, he said. Many users are unlikely to download third party applications if they were more fully informed about the true nature and the extent of the data being collected, he said.

The complaint also accuses Google of using its analytics tools and other services to collect extensive user information for targeted advertising purposes and for selling to third parties.

In addition, it accused Google of taking "affirmative steps" to limit the ability of users to block such data gathering and tracking. As an example, the complaint pointed to Google's alleged removal of an ad-blocking tool called AdBlock Plus, from its Google Play application store.

Such complaints are not unusual for Google or others like Facebook and Apple. All three companies have been fairly regular targets of consumer complaints alleging all sorts of privacy violations.

In the present instance, it remains unclear how far the lawsuit will go. Even Audet concedes the battle will be very tough. There's a level of detail and specificity involved in these privacy cases that can sometimes be hard to achieve, he said. Proving that the alleged data collection hurts consumers financially, or has injured them in a specific manner, can also be challenging, he said. "This is a hard case," he said.

A Google spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the company had no comment on the pending litigation.

News of the amended complaint was first reported by Courthouse News Service.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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