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New lawsuit: Why do Android phones mysteriously exchange 260MB a month with Google via cellular data when they're not even in use?

Ad giant sued after mobile allowances eaten by hidden transfers


Google on Thursday was sued for allegedly stealing Android users' cellular data allowances through unapproved, undisclosed transmissions to the web giant's servers.

The lawsuit, Taylor et al v. Google [PDF], was filed in a US federal district court in San Jose on behalf of four plaintiffs based in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the hope the case will be certified by a judge as a class action.

The complaint contends that Google is using Android users' limited cellular data allowances without permission to transmit information about those individuals that's unrelated to their use of Google services.

Data sent over Wi-Fi is not at issue, nor is data sent over a cellular connection in the absence of Wi-Fi when an Android user has chosen to use a network-connected application. What concerns the plaintiffs is data sent to Google's servers that isn't the result of deliberate interaction with a mobile device – we're talking passive or background data transfers via cell network, here.

"Google designed and implemented its Android operating system and apps to extract and transmit large volumes of information between Plaintiffs’ cellular devices and Google using Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances," the complaint claims. "Google’s misappropriation of Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances through passive transfers occurs in the background, does not result from Plaintiffs’ direct engagement with Google’s apps and properties on their devices, and happens without Plaintiffs’ consent."

Google designed and implemented its Android operating system and apps to extract and transmit large volumes of information between Plaintiffs’ cellular devices and Google using Plaintiffs’ cellular data allowances

Android users have to accept four agreements to participate in the Google ecosystem: Terms of Service; the Privacy Policy; the Managed Google Play Agreement; and the Google Play Terms of Service. None of these, the court filing contends, disclose that Google spends users' cellular data allowances for these background transfers.

To support the allegations, the plaintiff's counsel tested a new Samsung Galaxy S7 phone running Android, with a signed-in Google Account and default setting, and found that when left idle, without a Wi-Fi connection, the phone "sent and received 8.88 MB/day of data, with 94 per cent of those communications occurring between Google and the device."

The device, stationary, with all apps closed, transferred data to Google about 16 times an hour, or about 389 times in 24 hours. Assuming even half of that data is outgoing, Google would receive about 4.4MB per day or 130MB per month in this manner per device subject to the same test conditions.

Putting worries of what could be in that data to one side, based on an average price of $8 per GB of data in the US, that 130MB works out to about $1 lost to Google data gathering per month – if the device is disconnected from Wi-Fi the entire time and does all its passive transmission over a cellular connection.

An iPhone with Apple's Safari browser open in the background transmits only about a tenth of that amount to Apple, according to the complaint.

Much of the transmitted data, it's claimed, are log files that record network availability, open apps, and operating system metrics. Google could have delayed transmitting these files until a Wi-Fi connection was available, but chose instead to spend users' cell data so it could gather data at all hours.

Vanderbilt University Professor Douglas C. Schmidt performed a similar study in 2018 – except that the Chrome browser was open – and found that Android devices made 900 passive transfers in 24 hours.

Under active use, Android devices transfer about 11.6MB of data to Google servers daily, or 350MB per month, it's claimed, which is about half the amount transferred by an iPhone.

YouTube accounts for 13 percent of mobile data

FROM THE ARCHIVES

The complaint charges that Google conducts these undisclosed data transfers to further its advertising business, sending "tokens" that identify users for targeted advertising and preload ads that generate revenue even if they're never displayed.

"Users often never view these pre-loaded ads, even though their cellular data was already consumed to download the ads from Google," the legal filing claims. "And because these pre-loads can count as ad impressions, Google is paid for transmitting the ads."

The Register asked Google to respond to the lawsuit's allegations. It declined to comment.

We also asked Marc Goldberg, Chief Revenue Officer at ad analytics biz Method Media Intelligence whether preloaded ads ever get counted as billable events when not shown.

"Yes they could be," Goldberg said in an email to The Register. "It is important for advertisers to understand their billable event. What are they paying for? Auction won? Ads Served? Ads rendered? These simple questions need to be asked and understood."

The lawsuit seeks to recover the fair market value of the co-opted cellular data and the "reasonable value of the cellular data used by Google to extract and deliver information that benefited Google," dating back years to whenever this practice began. ®

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