Google is an advertising company that just happens to own a search engine and an operating system. But the company is exceptionally sensitive to how its data-hoovering practices are discussed in the media. Earlier this week, news broke that Porsche had chosen to use Apple’s CarPlay rather than Android Auto, due to the amount of data that Google gathers.
MotorTrend interviewed engineers at Porsche and reported the following: “As part of the agreement an automaker would have to enter with Google, Porsche said certain pieces of data must be collected and transmitted back to Mountain View, California. Stuff like vehicle speed, throttle position, coolant and oil temp, engine revs—basically Google wants a complete OBD2 dump whenever someone activates Android Auto… Apple, by way of stark contrast, only wants to know if the car is moving while Apple Play is in use.”
Google, meanwhile, is pushing back against these claims. A spokesperson for the company told MotorTrend that it does not collect data on coolant temperatures or throttle position. The company declined to provide a list of exactly what it does gather. Instead, the spokesperson emphasized that using Android Auto is an “opt-in” feature, and that certain data is used for safety, like restricting typing and only allowing voice input when the car is not in park. Other data is used to optimize the user’s “app experience.”
Yes, this comes down to a he-said / she-said situation, but there are reasons to believe Porsche over Mountain View.
Google’s abysmal privacy record
First, there’s the fact that Google openly acknowledges just how much data it gathers. As far back as 2010, Sergey Brin told The Atlantic, “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less now what you’re thinking about.” The company has been sued for numerous violations of user privacy across both the US and the EU.
Android’s privacy policies give Google enormous power to gather and share data or to sell it in advertising, which is why devices like Amazon’s Fire tablets and the Blackphone use custom OS forks without Google Play or other Google services. The company has faced multiple lawsuits for various privacy-violating schemes and systems and has generally shown NSA-like restraint when it comes to vacuuming data off devices.
The fact that users have to “opt-in” to share data with Android Auto is meaningless. The computing industry loves to talk about opt-in like it’s a separate checkbox or feature. In reality, Microsoft, Apple, and Google all regularly lock critical device features behind an “I Agree” button. If you want to use the capabilities of the Porsche, iPhone, or Surface you just purchased, you’re going to have to agree (though Linux is at least hypothetically a possibility for a computer).
The he-said / she-said nature of this kind of argument almost certainly turns on the kind of subtle technicalities PR firms love to exploit. It’s entirely possible that Porsche is telling the truth when it claims that Android Auto’s license agreement gives Google the ability to track large amounts of information, while Google could be telling the truth when it says it doesn’t currentlytrack specific types of data. Porsche is likely concerned about the kinds of data Google could give itself permission to track if it chooses to do so, and what its legal options are in the event Android Auto begins tracking information Porsche doesn’t agree with.
The final reason I’m more inclined to agree with Porsche is that the auto manufacturer has no reason to lie. It could have explained the situation by claiming that its own internal research found that its customers preferred Apple, or that it felt Apple’s Car Play was simply a better fit for the kind of vehicle experience Porsche wanted to create. There are a hundred ways to explain the situation by emphasizing what makes Apple better as opposed to saying something negative about an Android service. Google, in contrast, has every reason to downplay the types of data Android Auto gathers, or can gather.