Congress demands answers from Google about user location database

Representatives from Congress have written to Google CEO Sundar Pinchai to seek information on location data held in a secret store known as Sensorvault

US Congress has sent Google a letter requesting more information about its Sensorvault database

US congressional leaders have written to Google CEO Sundar Pinchai to request information about a database known as Sensorvault, where the tech giant allegedly stores exact location data from hundreds of millions of personal devices.

The letter, sent on April 23 to Pinchai on behalf of the bipartisan House Energy and Commerce Committee, raised a number of questions regarding the use and sharing of this data.

Sensorvault’s existence was revealed by The New York Times earlier in April. The US newspaper reported that law enforcement officials had sought access to data held by Google for use in criminal investigations, notably in identifying whether suspects had been near crime scenes.

Much of the data held in Sensorvault is collected through Google’s location history service

These ‘geofence’ warrants allow the police to search the database for new leads, but there is a risk of misidentification, as innocent bystanders could be erroneously implicated in investigations.

Much of the data held in Sensorvault is collected through Google’s location history service, which was launched on both Apple and Android devices in 2009. It allows the tech giant to collect location data from anyone signed in to a Google app on their phone, even if it is running in the background.

A representative for Google said in a statement, as reported by Reuters, that location history is “off by default”, adding: “If a user chooses to turn it on, we can provide helpful information, like real-time data to help them beat traffic on their way home from work. They can delete their location history data, or turn off the product entirely, at any time.”

The letter asked Google for further information about Sensorvault, specifically who has access, how accurate the data is, and whether it is the only store of personal location data the company has.

“The potential ramifications for consumer privacy are far-reaching and concerning when examining the purposes for the Sensorvault database and how precise location information could be shared with third parties,” the letter said.

Congressional lawmakers have asked that Pinchai answer their questions by May 7 and have organised a briefing for May 10.

The letter is the latest development in a congressional campaign for data privacy regulation, which is being spearheaded by senators such as Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic presidential candidate from Minnesota, and Marco Rubio from Florida.

It appears Congress is gathering information about Sensorvault to ascertain the scale of the problem and establish what legislative action is required.

Despite its developed technology sector, the US’ internet regulations are not comprehensive. With industry leaders such as Facebook and Google frequently at the centre of privacy scandals, it is clear that legislation is sorely needed.

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