Signage outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Signage outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Google knows your ‘secret interests’

GOOGLE  has been accused of spying on millions of Australians by building profiles containing "intimate lifestyle details" such as home and work addresses - plus "secret interests".

Computer technology company Oracle also alleged Google may have broken the law by misleading consumers about true motives for snooping - to target and sell ads - and the control they have over their own data.

Oracle levelled the claims in a document provided to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's digital platforms inquiry which the regulator made public on Tuesday along with 26 other submissions including News Corp Australia's, which urged the ACCC to recommend to the Government that Google be split up.

Google is facing intense scrutiny in the ACCC’s world-first inquiry. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Google is facing intense scrutiny in the ACCC’s world-first inquiry. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

If News made the most dramatic submissions, Oracle made the most disturbing.

It included a 17-page attachment called "Google's Shadow Profile" setting out a sinister surveillance operation of phone owners by the $1.2 trillion company.

"A consumer sees an ad that is unnervingly, pointedly accurate," the attachment began. "It seems to target information - so personal, so specific - that only this consumer would know the information.

"Maybe the ad targets a secret interest or hobby, a special place, or intimate lifestyle details.
"Is the microphone on? Is the camera activated? No - but they might as well be.

"In fact, Google is using massive amounts of consumer data, not all of which it discloses to consumers, to micro-target advertising. All without the consumers knowledge or consent."

Oracle claimed shadow profiles contain precise location information of Android users by capturing how close their phone is to Wi-Fi base stations and at what time.

"If a consumer connects to the same Wi-Fi access point at 9am Monday-Friday, the Wi-Fi base station likely represents the consumer's place of work," Oracle continued. "Similarly, if a consumer connects to the same base station every day at 7pm and stays connected through the evening, the station is likely in located in the consumer's home.

"A consumer's pattern of life - the daily rhythm of the people and places individuals spend time in the real world - combined with online web browsing, search history and a myriad of other data points creates an intimate dossier of a consumer's lifestyle."

Oracle is engaged in a long-running war with Google, having launched an $US8.8 billion ($12.4 billion) lawsuit in 2010 alleging Google's Android smartphone operating system infringed copyrights related to Oracle's Java platform.

Last year it alleged to the ACCC that Google was draining about one gigabyte of mobile data monthly via snooping. Google denied this.

In its new submission, Oracle suggested the ACCC examine whether Google's privacy policy was misleading and deceptive under Australian Consumer Law by telling users that location information was collected for innocuous purposes such as for offering features such as driving directions or movie showtimes.

"These purposes are not the primary purposes for which location information is collected," Oracle said. "Location information - as well as other activity information that Google collects - is primarily collected to sell advertising."

Oracle also said Google's personal data download feature, called "Takeout" omitted "entire categories of other data collected by Google".

That could also be misleading and deceptive, Oracle said.

Its submission primarily dealt with privacy. But the ACCC digital platforms inquiry is also investigating concerns of anti-competitive conduct.

The ACCC inquiry is being overseen by chair Rod Sims. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Rae
The ACCC inquiry is being overseen by chair Rod Sims. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Rae

Preliminary recommendations include that a regulatory authority monitor:

* whether digital platforms are "engaging in discriminatory conduct by favouring their own business interests above those of advertisers or potentially competing businesses"; and

* "the ranking of news and journalistic content by digital platforms and the provision of referral services to news media businesses".

News Corp Australia's submission urged the commission to go further, recommending "bold" solutions to Google's dominance of online advertising and internet search markets, such as breaking up the tech behemoth by forcing it to sell off Google Search.

"News Corp Australia considers that divestment is necessary in the case of Google, due to the unparalleled power that it currently exerts over news publishers and advertisers alike," the publisher says.

"News Corp Australia recognises that divestment in a non-merger context is a highly interventionist measure and will have significant ramifications.

"Accordingly, News Corp Australia recommends that this remedy should take the form of an ACCC recommendation to Government, following the conclusion of the inquiry, and should be limited to Google."

News and Foxtel, which is 65 per cent owned by News, separately submitted opposition to the ACCC recommendation for a mandatory takedown standard for copyright infringement.

It was better to amend the Copyright Act to, as News said, "make it crystal clear that digital platforms are liable for infringing content on their platforms".

Google would not comment on the submissions by Oracle and News Corp Australia, the publisher of this masthead.

Google's submission to the ACCC - made public last week along with 85 others - said the interim report "bases many of its recommendations on the mistaken premise that Google has market power in search, search advertising, and news media referrals".

One of the submissions released on Tuesday was from Nine, which recently absorbed Fairfax.

"The digital platforms are having a profound effect on the Australian media's ability to adequately fund the ongoing quality production of news and premium content," Nine said.

It is therefore imperative that recommendations made in the final report are actionable and practical, and that steps are taken to implement these recommendations in a speedy time frame."

Even new-entrant "media disrupters" were now under challenge to find a commercially viable business model, Nine said, noting Buzzfeed Australia had recently revealed it was cutting 11 positions.

"This demonstrates that the right regulatory rules are now more important than ever."

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