Tech giants Apple and Google have a duopoly in the mobile platform market with iOS and Android. This dominance allows the companies to dictate a lot to customers, who have little choice as alternatives. However, both Apple and Google insist they allow users to opt out of sharing telemetry data, but a new report shows that’s not the case.
“Both iOS and Google Android transmit telemetry, despite the user explicitly opting out of this,” wrote researcher Douglas Leith from Trinity College in Ireland, who publishes an academic paper detailing is findings.
The research, titled Mobile Handset Privacy: Measuring The Data iOS and Android Send to Apple And Google (PDF), shows Google is the worst offender. Specifically, the company takes 20 times more data from Pixel phone users on Android that Apple does from iPhone users on iOS.
“The phone IMEI, hardware serial number, SIM serial number and IMSI, handset phone number etc. are shared with Apple and Google,” Leith points out. “When a SIM is inserted, both iOS and Google Android send details to Apple/Google. iOS sends the MAC addresses of nearby devices, e.g. other handsets and the home gateway, to Apple, together with their GPS location. Currently there are few, if any, realistic options for preventing this data sharing.”
It is worth noting Leith did not use pre-installed apps or third-party apps when conducting his test. Instead, he looked specifically at OS-level functions.
“Google collects a notably larger volume of handset data than Apple,” Leith adds. “During the first 10 minutes of startup, the Pixel handset sends around 1MB of data to Google, compared with the iPhone sending around 42KB of data to Apple. When the handsets are sitting idle, the Pixel sends roughly 1MB of data to Google every 12 hours, compared with the iPhone sending 52KB to Apple — i.e., Google collects around 20 times more handset data than Apple.”
The report shows iOS and Android tap into the back-end servers ever 4.5 minutes. That means the platforms are regularly giving Apple and Google access to data. More importantly, this happens whether the phones are in use or not.
Apple and Google Response
Of course, taking data from users even if they choose not to share information is not a good look, especially for Google, which has a long history of privacy and data issues. Leith contacted both Apple and Google for their take on the report.
Apple did not respond directly to Leith, but publicly criticized the research. The company continues to maintain it does not take telemetry data if the user opts out. Google responded to Leith:
“Google responded with a number of comments and clarifications. They also say that they intend to publish public documentation on the telemetry data that they collect.”
In an official public statement, the company says the following:
“We identified flaws in the researcher’s methodology for measuring data volume and disagree with the paper’s claims that an Android device shares 20 times more data than an iPhone. According to our research, these findings are off by an order of magnitude, and we shared our methodology concerns with the researcher before publication.
This research largely outlines how smartphones work. Modern cars regularly send basic data about vehicle components, their safety status and service schedules to car manufacturers, and mobile phones work in very similar ways. This report details those communications, which help ensure that iOS or Android software is up to date, services are working as intended, and that the phone is secure and running efficiently.”
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