When Google Sells Your Data, It Might Be Illegally Killing Your Phone's Battery

Google's facing accusations that when information is shared between Android apps to deliver targeted ads, it drains the battery.

Jul 22 2014, 8:29pm
The "Android Garden" Image: Flickr/Dan H

Personal information about you and your browsing, email, and app-using habits is regularly sent between apps on your Android phone, a potentially illegal practice that could be killing your battery life.

We'll soon find out more about the practice, and about Google's information-sharing practices in general, after a federal judge Paul Grewal ruled that there's enough suspicion to move forward with a class-action lawsuit filed against the company.

Most of the claims of plaintiffs Robert DeMars and Lorena Barrios—chiefly that Google illegally changed its privacy policy terms in March, 2012 to allow what you watch on YouTube to affect the ads you see in Gmail, the posts you share on Google+ to affect what you see in search and so on—were thrown out because you don't really have to use Google's free services, and Google can change its privacy policies whenever it wants. 

But that's left us with another one of DeMars' and Barrios' claims: That there's a "greater discharge of battery power and system resources due to unauthorized activity." In other words, the plaintiffs say that they're not down with their information being shared between apps to deliver a more ~targeted~ advertising experience because every time that happens, extra battery power is expended, and the phone slows down. Moreover, they allege that this information is shared with third party apps, too. 

I suspect that the battery drain from this practice is minimal: Google "concedes that its disclosure of user data causes the phones to send at least 'a few bytes of name, email address, and zip code information,'" the ruling said. Even those few bites is going to end up using some amount of battery.

But that's not quite the point—most class action lawsuits against Google have been thrown out because people haven't been able to prove that there's a "demonstrable harm" to what Google's doing against them. Battery drain for something that you don't want and aren't compensated for could very clearly be a harm.

"Allegations of resource depletion, including battery power, gives rise to standing," Grewal wrote. Google says that some previous battery issues associated with information transmission are "now done," and that much of the user data is now stored on the cloud, where it doesn't "implicate phone battery consumption."

Still, those "bits" Google conceded are still being transmitted. Maybe it'll end up being negligible. What's important is that the judge ruled that the claim "requires a heavily and inherently fact-bound inquiry that the court may not reach at this stage in the litigation." That means that there's a good chance we're about to get a look into the ins and outs of Google's advertising backbone: what information is shared with who, and when.

There's value in that, regardless of the merit of the remaining claim is. If the plaintiffs actually win this thing, most every Android user will be due some sort of compensation. Even if they lose, we might get a close look at what Mountain View does with your data.

Google lawsuit