Is Google Sharing Personal Info With App Developers?

Consumer Watchdog files formal complaint with FTC

Google has had its share of privacy scandals, but the giant could be facing another. Charging that Google has been sharing users' personal information with app developers, Consumer Watchdog filed a formal complaint Monday with the Federal Trade Commission and the California Attorney General.

In the seven-page complaint, the group says Google is in violation of its consent decree with the FTC by failing to give consumers proper notice that it was sharing their personal information, such as email, telephone, geolocation and credit card, with app developers.

To download apps, Android users in Google Play must use Google Wallet. "If you download an Android app from the Google Play store, all your personal information [from Google Wallet] is given to the app developer even if the app doesn't require it for the transaction," said John Simpson, the director for Consumer Watchdog's privacy project, during a press conference. "Many of these apps are very personal in nature. What makes this puzzling, no other app store does this." 

No stranger to privacy controversy, Google has been taken to task by the FTC and consumer groups a number of times over the past three years. As a result of inadvertently sharing users' personal information in Google Buzz, Google signed a 20-year consent decree with the FTC that ordered the company to implement a comprehensive privacy program. Last year, the company paid a record $22.5 million to settle FTC charges it circumvented Safari privacy settings.

Google responded that its use of Google Wallet, similar to the PayPal model, is in compliance with the consent decree and that information is only shared when a transaction is involved and only with merchants that have agreed to the Google Play and Google Wallet developer terms of service.

"Google Wallet shares the information needed to process transactions and maintain accounts, and this is clearly stated in the Google Wallet privacy notice," a Google representative said in a statement.

But Consumer Watchdog isn't buying it and thinks Google has had it easy with only having to shell out $22.5 million, practically pocket change for the multi-billion dollar company. Consumer Watchdog challenged the amount of the fine in court.

By Consumer Watchdog's count, tens–if not hundreds–of millions of Android users' information has been shared with app developers. If the FTC were to add it all up at $16,000 for each violation, Google could be held liable for billions of dollars.

"Google has become a serial privacy abuser," said Simpson. "Google's wanton disregard for its obligations under the law demonstrate a need for meaningful penalties. This time we'd like to see Google pay attention."