Will the real Big Brother please stand up?
The update for the Google Chrome mobile app for Android needs to obtain the permission of the user to a new clause in the Terms and Conditions for its functioning, under “Hardware controls”, which raises extremely serious privacy concerns: if granted, the updated app will have permission to record audio with the microphone at any time without the user’s confirmation and also take pictures and videos with the camera at any time without the user’s confirmation.
Does this mean that the telephone conversations can be recorded at Chrome’s will whenever the app runs in the background? Does it mean that it can also record sounds from the phone’s surroundings, again, at Chrome’s will? Does it mean that at “any time” the camera of the phone can start, at Chrome’s will, to record anything out there? Where are these recordings stored? Who has access to these recordings? Does the user even find out such recordings are/were happening? These are questions which need answers. The words in the terms and conditions for the updated app were very few. And worrying.
As this blog post starts from a personal experience, unfortunately I do not have more information on this issue. I don’t know whether such a clause already exists in the Terms and Conditions of other Google Apps, or other apps, but I find it almost unbelievable (under the terms the clause was expressed in). “At any time” is a very powerful legal description of a context, as it basically encompasses every possible time and situation. “Without your confirmation” is another powerful wording, as it suggests that the user can be literally spied on. Needles to be said, such an approach breaks at least several provisions of the EU Data Protection Directive (and the national implementation laws, obviously), such as the lawful basis for processing rules, the right of the data subject to be informed, purpose limitation rules.
As I am not a techy, I have no idea which are the technical conditions for a mobile app to be able to take photos and video/audio record with my phone without me knowing when it does so. It might not even be possible. But if it is not possible, why is Google Chrome asking me if I allow it to do this at any time, without my confirmation? And if it is possible, why on Earth does Google Chrome need to take photos with my camera and record sounds and conversations with it?
I looked at the specifications for what the updated version of the app brings new and nothing looks like the app needs photos, video and audio recordings to function. Under “What’s new”, Google writes: * full screen on phones – Scroll to hide the toolbar, * simplified search – View and refine your query directly in the omnibox, * tab history on tablets – Long press the browser’s back button to view your tab history, * several stability improvements. That is all. Perhaps audio recordings help with the stability issues? (kidding).
Therefore, if any of you, frequent or occasional readers, can enlighten me on any of these issues, I will be grateful. In the meantime, I have not updated the Chrome app on my phone.
The exact wording from the terms and conditions:
Allows the app to record audio with the microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.
Take pictures and videos
Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.