Email messages obtained from a lawsuit against Google emphasize just how important location data is in the emerging mobile advertising business.
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Apple and Google are expected to send representatives to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next week to testify about how they use anonymous location data collected from mobile devices.
But even as Apple last week offered a public explanation of its effort to create a database of Wi-Fi hotspots, Google's private thoughts on location data were aired.
Several Google email messages disclosed in Skyhook Wireless' ongoing patent lawsuit against Google and uncovered last week by the San Jose Mercury News underscore just how important location data is to Google and its growing mobile advertising business.
Responding to a query last May from Google co-founder Larry Page, who became CEO in April, Andy Rubin, who runs Google's Android project, said in an email that collecting data from mobile phones is "extremely valuable to Google."
This was back when Google was scrambling to contain the damage done through the inadvertent collection of Wi-Fi packet data by its Street View cars.
Google did not respond to a request to comment on the authenticity of the disclosed email messages, but offered this statement: "All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing, and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user."
Another email obtained by the San Jose Mercury News, from Google product manager Steve Lee, elaborated on Rubin's position. "I cannot stress enough how important Google's Wi-Fi location database is to our Android and mobile product strategy," Lee reportedly wrote, in reference to Motorola's decision in April 2010 to drop Google Maps for Skyhook's Core Location service. "We absolutely do care about this (decision by Motorola) because we need Wi-Fi data collection in order to maintain and improve our Wi-Fi location service."
This is hardly surprising. No one would bother collecting location data were it not useful. But when Apple or Google talk about location data, they have tended to downplay its importance, framing it as a simple quality of service matter. Such discretion has meant that consumers don't really understand that they've agreed to assist in the collection of data like the location of Wi-Fi hotspots, which has become essential to the efficient delivery of location-related services.
As Apple put it in its open letter last week, "Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date."
Providing that education to the public will be critical for businesses that expect to leverage location data for advertising or service delivery. If revelations about the unanticipated use of location data continue, regulations may emerge that limit the utility of location data.
U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, said last week that his committee's forthcoming hearing on mobile privacy represents an attempt to determine whether federal privacy laws have kept pace with the way mobile devices are used.
Technology companies also have to consider that opportunities to benefit from location data come with an obligation to protect that data.