The
US Congress has issued an open letter asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to
explain in detail why his company keeps a database of the precise location
information of hundreds of millions of consumers.

Sensorvault, as it is referred to internally, is a database that Google maintains to improve its offerings (serve better ads, provide accurate location services, etc.), but also to help police in criminal investigations. The data arrives at Google in the form of latitude and longitude with a high degree of accuracy, and continuously tracks users’ whereabouts.

However, as the New York Times reported recently, the police have wrongly used this data to jail innocents. The letter to Google’s CEO is therefore well timed.

Citing
media reports – the NYT piece likely among them – Congress states that “Google
collects precise location information in numerous ways including from the
location history function on Android phones, Google searches, and Google apps
that have location enabled.”

“Second,
precise location information is reportedly collected even when people are not
making calls or using apps, which enables Google to track the ‘whole pattern of
life’ of an individual.”

“Finally,”
the letter continues, “Google reportedly never destroys any of the precise
location information it captures in the Sensorvault database, and has therefore
compiled an extraordinarily detailed picture of the movements and whereabouts
of a vast number of consumers stretching back more than a decade.”

The letter asks Pichai things like:

  • What information does
    Google store in Sensorvault and for what purposes?
  • Who has access and /
    or uses the data, including affiliates and subsidiaries?
  • Does Google maintain
    adjacent databases with similar purposes?
  • What are the sources
    (apps, services) from which Google collects the information maintained in
    Sensorvault?
  • Is location data sent
    to Sensorvault by default by every Android handset or does the user have to opt
    in?
  • Do users have any
    control over this aspect of Google’s services?
  • Can users opt out?
    (i.e. deny Google the ability to track their location for Sensorvault’s
    intended purposes)
  • How accurate is
    Google’s location tracking?


and the list goes on.

Pichai
has until May 7 to provide the written responses requested. Congress also asks
the Google chief to make arrangements to brief the Committee staff on the
topics no later than May 10. Readers can access the open letter here.