On Tuesday, Douglas Leith at Ireland’s Trinity College published a study [PDF] about user data collection on iOS and Android. It shows that when a smartphone is idle, both iOS and Android shares data with Apple and Google every 4.5 minutes on average.
You’ve probably seen headlines like “Android sends 20x more data to Google than iOS sends to Apple.” Is that actually the conclusion, though? Or, to be more accurate, is that the correct conclusion?
Collecting Mobile User Data
First, as the paper points out, the study assumes “a privacy-conscious but busy/non-technical user, who when asked does not select options that share data with Apple and Google but otherwise leaves handset settings at their default value.” Translation: A blank smartphone left at default settings. This is fine.
Next, the quote that headlines refer to [sic, and so forth]:
However, Google collects a notably larger volume of handset data than Apple. During the first 10 minutes of startup the Pixel handset sends around 1MB of data is sent to Google compared with the iPhone sending around 42KB of data to Apple.
When the handsets are sitting idle the Pixel sends roughly 1MB of data to Google every 12 hours compared with the iPhone sending 52KB to Apple i.e., Google collects around 20 times more handset data than Apple.
But when we examine Table 1 in the paper, it shows that Apple and Google collect roughly the same amount of data. That begs the question: “If both companies collect nearly the same amount of data, why the discrepancy in file size?”
We also see a couple differences in checkmarks versus X’s. Android does not collect location data, local IP, and nearby Wi-Fi MAC addresses. And yet its file size is bigger?
Data can be interpreted in multiple ways. My questions are: “Are Apple and Google using different compression algorithms?” and “Perhaps Apple is using compression and Google is not?”
Ars Technica reports that Google said the researcher’s methodology is flawed (Apple has made no comment, as far I as I know):
This research largely outlines how smartphones work. Modern cars regularly send basic data about vehicle components, their safety status and service schedules to car manufacturers, and mobile phones work in very similar ways.
This report details those communications, which help ensure that iOS or Android software is up to date, services are working as intended, and that the phone is secure and running efficiently.
At the end of the day I don’t know what’s going on, but I think it’s a fallacy to draw this conclusion based on the evidence given. We can see with iOS 14 privacy labels that Google collects more data than what Apple collects with its apps. But Apple does not disclose non-app data collection. I think there is a difference.