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Class action suit targets Google over Android GPS tracking

Apr 29, 2011 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Google has been sued for $50 million by two HTC Inspire 4G owners in Michigan in a class-action lawsuit regarding Android's ability to collect information on a user's GPS location. Meanwhile, Oracle gained an early upper hand in its Android-related lawsuit against Google, and Barnes & Noble has countersued Microsoft over its Nook-related Android suit, arguing anti-competitive behavior by Redmond.

The class action lawsuit against Google was filed late on April 27, in U.S. District Court in Detroit, reports The Detroit News. The lawsuit was filed by HTC Inspire 4G owners Julie Brown and Kayla Molaski, of Oakland County, Michigan, asking for $50 million in class action damages. It is also petitioning an injunction to stop Google from offering Android operating system software that enables tracking of GPS location. (The Inspire 4G, pictured at right, is offered by AT&T.)

The suit comes a week after Google acknowledged that Android phones with active GPS devices store some location data directly on phones, but only for a short time. Google also stated at the time that any sharing of that location data requires the user's permission.

Yet according to Brown and Molaski's s lawyer Steven Budaj in his complaint, Android's tracking capability puts "users at serious risk of privacy invasions, including stalking." 

The smartphone privacy suit is believed to be the first of its kind filed in the U.S. says the Detroit News.

Apple blames iPhone tracking on software error

The Android tracking issue emerged after a more extensive location-tracking mechanism was discovered on the Apple iPhone. As has been widely reported, police have used locally stored iPhone data to aid their investigations.

On April 22, two Florida men filed a somewhat similar lawsuit against Apple, reported Bloomberg. Apple was accused of violating privacy laws, as well as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, by maintaining a log of user locations for a year without offering a way to disable the feature.

On April 27, Apple Inc. finally released a response to published allegations about the iPhone's storage of GPS tracking data. Apple was said to have stated that the capability for storing a record of users' movements for up to a year was due to a "software error." Apple also stated that a software update due to arrive in the next few weeks will limit the storage to no more than seven days worth of location data.

The fix is in…your phone

Both Google and Apple have said the location data is stored temporarily as part of Assisted GPS (aGPS) technology, which speeds a GPS fix by triangulating the phone's position using cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots. This requires some storage of data from all these sources, although it's unclear just how long the data needs to be stored to achieve its goal.

At DigitalTrends, Jeffrey Van Camp argues that the lawsuit against Google doesn't stand a chance of succeeding. This is because every time an Android user turns on wireless network location-based services, Android specifically asks whether users agree or disagree to the statement: "Allow Google's location service to collect anonymous location data. Collection will occur even when no applications are running."

The Florida lawsuit might have a better chance, he writes, because "Apple doesn't currently warn users before they turn on GPS services; they're only warned when they agree to the iTunes Terms and Conditions whenever there's a new update."

Van Camp also suggests that the wireless carriers are equally, if not more, to blame. After all, he notes, the carriers actually have a track record of selling information about users to law enforcement.

Oracle scores early lawsuit points

The class-action suit against Google over privacy is just one of many attacks against Google and its partners related to Android, an open source technology Google developed, but for the most part does not own.

The biggest lawsuit directly aiming at Google is Oracle's August suit, which alleges infringement of Java-related patents in Android's Dalvik virtual machine. On April 27, U.S. District Judge William Alsup suggested the court would side with Oracle in a "claim construction" issue in the case, according to our sister publication eWEEK.

In three of the seven patents Oracle cited in its action, Alsup was said to have sided with Oracle's interpretation on four out five of the technical terms at issue in the case, and wrote his own interpretation for the fifth. Alsup gave both sides until May 6 to submit a critique of his tentative decision, which is expected to go to trial by November.

Barnes & Noble counter-sues Microsoft over Android

In response to Microsoft's suits against Barnes & Noble last month over Android-based UI techniques used in the Nook-e-reader, B&N counter-sued on April 25.

As reported by eWEEK, the counter-claim details a July 2010 meeting in which Microsoft's counsel allegedly demanded an "exorbitant royalty" for a patent license for Barnes & Noble's Nook Color. This was said by B&N to be "an even higher per device royalty for any device that acted 'more like a computer' as opposed to an eReader."

Microsoft's original lawsuit, which also targets Nook device manufacturing partners Foxconn International and Inventec, alleges that the book retailer illegally used technology in Nook-branded devices covered under Microsoft patents.

As part of the counter complaint, which B&N filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle, the company also alleges anti-competitive practices by Microsoft in its recent pact with Nokia over Windows Phone 7.

"Microsoft and Nokia discussed and apparently agreed upon a strategy for coordinated use of their patents," B&N notes in its filing. "This type of horizontal agreement between holders of significant patent portfolios is per se illegal under the antitrust laws, threatens competition for mobile device operating systems and is further evidence of Microsoft's efforts to dominate and control Android and other open source operating systems."

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