Google and Facebook are tracking Australian users ‘extensively’, warns ACCC

The personal information of Australians is being harvested by Google from eight out of 10 of the country’s most popular websites, the consumer watchdog has warned.

The search engine is also mining info from nine out of 10 Android apps, while fellow tech giant Facebook is receiving personal information from the users of four in every 10 of the most popular Android apps, even if those people don’t use the powerful social network.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission revealed the tracking in the its first six-monthly update looking at digital platforms in Australia, with the 106-page study arriving just weeks before the regulator’s news bargaining code was expected to be introduced into parliament.

The code could change the way the tech giants operate in Australia.

The report also found Australians had flooded online messaging services from Facebook and Apple to stay in touch during the coronavirus pandemic, raising more privacy concerns, and called for tech firms to do more to remove scams from messaging services and social media.

But one of its biggest findings related to the use of Australians’ personal information, which it found was being “extensively tracked” by Google and Facebook, not only while consumers were on their platforms but while using seemingly unrelated websites and apps.

The ACCC employed data privacy firm AppCensus to analyse the extent of user tracking and profiling on the top 1000 websites and Android apps in Australia.

It found Google’s third-party digital trackers were on more than 80 per cent of the most popular websites, while Facebook’s trackers were found on more than 40 per cent, followed by Amazon and Microsoft.

Facebook was also caught receiving information from four in 10 of the most popular Android apps, AppCensus said, and almost two thirds of those apps were able to transmit information about their users to Facebook, whether or not those individuals had Facebook accounts or were aware of the data use.

“The ACCC considers that many consumers would be unaware that these platforms and other businesses involved in the supply of advertising services are receiving user information in this way,” the report noted.

Some of the more “dangerous” types of data harvested and shared by apps included access to users’ phone cameras, contact lists, locations, and permission to record audio, AppCensus noted.

Data was also being collected by online messaging services, even though they were generally considered more private, the report found.

Facebook-owned service WhatsApp, for example, stored a user’s phone number, the phone numbers of their friends, contacts they had blocked, the names of group chats in which they participated, information about their device, internet provider and their IP address.

The report said WhatsApp and other online messaging services provided users with “little clarity about the extent to which user data will be collected, used, or shared with others,” even though nine in 10 users said they were concerned about their privacy.

The interim report also flagged the increasing use of voice-activated smart speakers and augmented reality apps as areas for greater data collection from consumers, and ACCC chairman Rod Sims said these new areas would be closely monitored.

“As large platforms continue to collect vast amounts of consumer information, they are also expanding into new sectors, growing their ‘ecosystems’ and with it, their market power and ability to draw in, and lock in consumers,” Mr Sims said.

“These expanded services can deliver benefits to consumers but the impacts on competition and consumer choice need to be closely monitored and considered.”

The ACCC’s interim report was released more than a year after its 18-month investigation into digital platforms concluded, making 23 recommendations to improve competition and protect consumers, some of which are now being implemented.

Its proposed news bargaining code, which will see Google and Facebook pay for Australian news they use on their platforms, is expected to be introduced to parliament before the end of the year, while the ACCC’s report into digital advertising services is due to be submitted to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg by December 31.

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