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Google questioned by Congress over Sensorvault location database

A House committee wants a briefing with Google by May 7 about the database law enforcement has tapped for location data.

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Rep. Frank Pallone, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee

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Congress wants answers from Google about a database that law enforcement has been using for location data to help with criminal investigations.

The database, called Sensorvault, has detailed location records from hundreds of millions of phones around the world, according to a report earlier this month from the New York Times. It's meant to collect information on the users of Google's products so the company can better target them with ads and see how effective those ads are. But police in cities across the US have been using "geofence" warrants to tap the database for information that could help them when cases go cold.

On Tuesday, top Democrats and Republicans from the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking for more information about the database.

The members of Congress -- including Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, and ranking Republican Greg Walden -- asked for answers from Google by May 7 and a briefing by May 10. Among the inquiries: Who's able to access Sensorvault information, and what kind of controls consumers have over the data?

"The potential ramifications for consumer privacy are far reaching and concerning," the letter says. "We would like to know the purposes for which Google maintains the Sensorvault database and the extent to which Google shares precise location information from this database with third parties."

Google didn't directly address the letter from Congress, but a spokesman said the company collects the data for a feature called Location History, which lets people view where they've been on Google Maps and is turned off by default. 

"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," the spokesman said. "They can delete their Location History data, or turn off the product entirely, at any time."

The controversy over Sensorvault comes as the tech industry faces intense scrutiny over its data collection practices. Facebook has been in the hot seat since its Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which user information from tens of millions of people was misused by a third party. Google has also been subjected to scrutiny after the AP reported last year that Google tracked people's location even after they'd turned off location-sharing on their phones.

Below are the specific questions from Congress:

  1. What information does Google store in the Sensorvault database and for what purposes does Google use this information?

  2. Does Google maintain other databases of precise location information?

  3. Who is able to access the information in the Sensorvault database?

  4. How accurate is the precise location information stored in the Sensorvault database?

  5. What controls, if any, does Google provide to consumers to limit or revoke Google's access to the information stored in the Sensorvault database?

  6. What is Google's retention policy with respect to precise location information stored in the Sensorvault database?  Does Google share, sell, license or otherwise disclose precise location information (including deidentified data) from the Sensorvault database with any third parties other than law enforcement?

  7. Does Google share, sell, license, or otherwise disclose precise location information (including deidentified data) from the Sensorvault database with any third parties other than law enforcement?