/Area 120: Googles new apps dont clearly disclose it owns them – Business Insider

Area 120: Googles new apps dont clearly disclose it owns them – Business Insider

  • Google has built a suite of popular apps without clearly disclosing it owns them. 
  • Area 120, an app incubator owned by the California search giant, offers buzzy apps for transportation, job-hunting, education, and other areas.
  • But the app listing in app stores don’t make clear that Area 120 is owned by Google, and the apps themselves don’t offer explanations either. 
  • This risks unwitting users handing over personal data they wouldn’t choose to give to Google, and some say they feel misled.
  • Rival Facebook discloses that it owns its own experimental apps far more clearly.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Users of transportation app Pigeon could be forgiven for thinking the app was developed by just another buzzy startup.

The app, which uses crowdsourced data to help people navigate cities, describes itself as “THE app for locals who are tired of unexpected delays or service changes” on its iOS App Store listing page, and talks about building a “community of users.”

There’s no mention of corporate ownership when users download or boot up the app, and the App Store listing says it’s developed by the generically named entity “Area 120,” which also has event-finding and educational apps in its library.

The first real clue as to its real provenance comes when a curious user clicks on the “Privacy Policy” link on the app listing — and is taken to Google’s official privacy policy.

Over the past few years, Google has quietly built a suite of popular consumer apps with millions of cumulative downloads for everything from children’s education to transportation — including Pigeon — without clearly disclosing its ownership of them.

It has launched a bevvy of new products and services through “Area 120,” a subsidiary dedicated to building new products outside of Google’s core expertise on search and productivity, where they have grown popular in isolation from the Google brand.

Google doesn’t make its ownership of Area 120 a secret — there are numerous news articles tying the two organizations together, and Area 120’s website explains its Google origins. But the apps themselves carry little sign of their $910 billion parent company — irking some users who feel tricked into sharing data with Google, and raising questions about the obligations of both tech firms and the users of their products.

Should established firms have a responsibility to make clear when they’re behind buzzy new products? How much onus is on ordinary users to thoroughly research apps before installing them? And if tech companies know their users won’t read the fine print, do they have an obligation to do more to keep them informed?

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “Area 120 is Google’s workshop for experimental projects, in which small teams build, launch and improve apps, which are separate from other products and product development at Google. All Area 120 apps link to Google’s privacy policy and their websites all include FAQs explaining that Area 120 is part of Google.”

The apps aren’t clear about their ownership

Across Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, Area 120 currently offers four different apps: Rivet, an app that helps young children learn to read; Shoelace, an NYC-focused app for finding things to do; transit app Pigeon; and Kormo, a CV and job-finding app.

None of the apps currently make any disclosure in their respective app store descriptions that they are owned by Google, and are instead listed under the developer Area 120, and the information they display when a user boots them up is similarly obtuse.

pigeon app


BI


When a user loads up Pigeon Transit, it asks them to “Get Started” by adding their home and work information, without mentioning Google.

Kormo, which is currently available in India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, similarly doesn’t mention Google in its sign-up flow. It asks users what fields they’re interested in and requests their phone number before displaying job listings.

kormo


BI


When a user downloads Rivet and opens it for the first time, they have an option to create an account or not. If they do, the terms and conditions talk about logging in “with your Google account” and refer to the Google Privacy Policy, but it doesn’t explicitly state in plain English that Google owns the service.

Google accounts can be used to sign into many non-Google-owned products across the internet, which may confuse users — and it’s well-known that many people simply don’t read the fine print terms and conditions when signing up for a new service at all.

If a user doesn’t opt to create an account, there is no sign of its Google ownership at all.

rivet


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Shoelace is currently invite-only, so Business Insider was unable to test its login flow. The splash page when it opens and asks for a user’s invite code doesn’t mention Google, and an online form it links to to register interest doesn’t disclose Google ownership, though it lists an @google.com email address to opt out of its mailing list.

On Google Play, the Additional Information section at the bottom of the listings for Rivet and Kormo say “Offered by Google Commerce Ltd”; there’s no such acknowledgement on the iOS App Store.

The dedicated websites for the apps acknowledge Google’s ownership of Area 120 in “About” or “FAQ” sections — if users actually go looking for them.

‘A concerted effort on Google’s part to hide their data collection’

Some users say they feel deceived by Google’s lack of transparency around ownership. 

Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, cofounder of programming retreat Recurse Center, said he found out after wondering how Pigeon was making money, and raised concerns about whether users are being duped into sharing data with Google that they otherwise wouldn’t chose to.

“My home and work addresses, as well as how I get around the city, are sensitive pieces of information, but I’m much less worried about sharing that information with a company in isolation. The problem with Google secretly building apps to collect data like this is that they can take my data and connect it to everything else they already know about me,” he wrote in a message.

“It’s also clear that the issue isn’t just a lack of disclosure, but a concerted effort on Google’s part to hide their data collection. This stuff doesn’t just happen — there was some product manager or engineer who decided to write ‘We won’t share this info with anyone’ when they ask for your address without acknowledging that ‘we’ refers to ‘Google.’ And of course, this isn’t just a couple of minor product decisions — the whole app requires that you sign up with a Google account or a phone number. Why? Because that way they can connect your data to everything else they know about you.”

Adam Blacker, VP of insights at app research firm Apptopia, said that Google’s ownership is clear only if users know to actually search for it it, and said that most users would likely never bother to investigate the provenance of an app before installing it.

“Looking at these apps, I quickly found signs or direct information that they were tied to Google, but that was because I was looking for it,” he wrote in an email. “In my personal opinion, people likely do not realize or care who is truly behind a mobile app. I would venture to guess that most people look at the title of the app, the screenshots provided, anywhere from 0-2 reviews, and read some (maybe all) of the description. Going deeper than that feels like asking a lot.”

Google isn’t the only tech giant to operate an internal app incubator, but others are more transparent about their origins. Facebook runs NPE Team, a unit intended to build and iterate on experimental apps and products, and makes clear that it owns the consumer-facing apps it releases. 

Its products — a DJ app, a meme-making app, and a social networking app — display a message “Developed by NPE Team, from Facebook” on its app store listings and when they’re first launched on users’ phones.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company did this to be transparent with users, while signalling that these services aren’t core Facebook products and may be changed or ultimately shut down.

Do you work at Google? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal at +1 (650) 636-6268 using a non-work phone, email at rprice@businessinsider.com, Telegram or WeChat at robaeprice, or Twitter DM at @robaeprice. (PR pitches by email only, please.)

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