Google cuts some Android phone data for wireless carriers

A Google sign is seen during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. (Reuters/File)
Updated 19 August 2019

Google cuts some Android phone data for wireless carriers

  • Google’s move illustrates how concerned the company has become about drawing attention amid a heightened focus in much of the world on data privacy

SAN FRANCISCO: Alphabet Inc.’s Google has shut down a service it provided to wireless carriers globally that showed them weak spots in their network coverage, people familiar with the matter told Reuters, because of Google’s concerns that sharing data from users of its Android phone system might attract the scrutiny of users and regulators.

The withdrawal of the service, which has not been previously reported, has disappointed wireless carriers that used the data as part of their decision-making process on where to extend or upgrade their coverage. Even though the data were anonymous and the sharing of it has become commonplace, Google’s move illustrates how concerned the company has become about drawing attention amid a heightened focus in much of the world on data privacy.

Google’s Mobile Network Insights service, which had launched in March 2017, was essentially a map showing carriers’ signal strengths and connection speeds they were delivering in each area.

The service was provided free to carriers and vendors that helped them manage operations. The data came from devices running Google’s Android operating system, which is on about 75% of the world’s smartphones, making it a valuable resource for the industry.

It used data only from users who had opted into sharing location history and usage and diagnostics with Google. The data were aggregated, meaning they did not explicitly link any information to any individual phone user. It included data relating to a carrier’s own service and that of competitors, which were not identified by name. 

Nevertheless, Google shut down the service in April due to concerns about data privacy, four people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. Some of them said secondary reasons likely included challenges ensuring data quality and connectivity upgrades among carriers being slow to materialize.

Google spokeswoman Victoria Keough confirmed the move but declined to elaborate, saying only that changing “product priorities” were behind it. Google’s notice to carriers when it shut down the service did not specify a reason, two of the four people told Reuters.

“We worked on a program to help mobile partners improve their networks through aggregated and anonymized performance metrics,” Keough said. “We remain committed to improving network performance across our apps and services for users.”

Closer scrutiny

The loss of Google’s service is the latest example of an internet company opting to end a data-sharing service rather than risk a breach or further scrutiny from lawmakers. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, introduced last year, prohibits companies sharing user data with third parties without users’ explicit consent or a legitimate business reason.

US and European lawmakers have stepped up their focus on how tech companies treat user data after a series of large-scale data security failures and the revelation that Facebook Inc. improperly shared data on 87 million of its users with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Walking tightrope

Internet companies now walk a tightrope in trying to generate revenue or improve their services by supplying user data to other companies because they risk compromising — or appearing to compromise — data privacy. And companies including Google and Facebook have curtailed access to data by outside companies over the past two years.

Google’s Mobile Network Insights service was not the only source of detailed customer data used by carriers to determine where cell tower upgrades are needed, but it was useful because of the sheer volume of Android phones in the market.

It was an “independent reference from the horse’s mouth, so you couldn’t get any better than this,” said Mushil Mustafa, a former employee at Dubai-based carrier du. “But the carriers have investment in other tools, obviously.”


Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

Updated 07 December 2019

Lebanon’s journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest

  • The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world

BEIRUT: Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work — including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats — while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon’s entire ruling elite. Local media outlets — some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow — are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon’s divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
“How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy,” Berry said.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters’ demands that Lebanon’s sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest — which led to the Cabinet’s resignation over a month ago — as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as “bandits.”
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
“I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them,” said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
“I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon,” said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
“I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is,” Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun’s FPM.
“The protest movement has turned our lives upside down,” said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station’s logo “is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety.”
Television reporters with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Amal’s NBN channels were also attacked in a town near Beirut, when they were covering the closure of the highway linking the capital city with southern Lebanon by protesters. In a video, an NBN correspondent is seen being attacked, while troops and policemen stand nearby without intervening.
“This happens a lot in Lebanon because some media organizations are politicized. No one sees media organizations as they are but sees them as representing the political group that owns them,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Beirut-based media watchdog group SKeyes.
“The biggest problem regarding these violations is that there is no punishment,” Mhanna said. Authorities usually fail to act even when they identify those behind attacks on journalists, he added.
Coverage of the protests also led to several journalists resigning from one of Lebanon’s most prominent newspapers, Al-Akhbar, which is seen as close to Hezbollah, and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, which aligns closely with the policies of Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Joy Slim, who quit as culture writer at Al-Akhbar after more than five years, said she did so after being “disappointed” with the daily’s coverage of the demonstrations. She released a video widely circulated on social media that ridiculed those who accuse the protesters of being American agents.
Sami Kleib, a prominent Lebanese journalist with a wide following around the Middle East, resigned from Al-Mayadeen last month. He said the reason behind his move was that he was “closer to the people than the authorities.”
“The Lebanese media is similar to politics in Lebanon where there is division between two axes: One that supports the idea of conspiracy theory, and another that fully backs the protest movement with its advantages and disadvantages,” Kleib said.