Google on Monday agreed to pay a record-breaking $391.5 million in settlement to settle a privacy lawsuit filed by a forty-state coalition of attorneys general over its location tracking practices.
The settlement, which was led by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Nebraska AG Doug Peterson, is the largest attorney general-led consumer privacy settlement ever in the U.S., states the announcement published by DoJ.
The U.S. attorneys general opened the Google investigation following a 2018 Associated Press article that revealed the search giant violated state consumer protection laws by misleading users and tracking their locations since at least 2014 even when they chose privacy settings claiming to prevent the company from doing so.
In particular, the tech giant confused its users about the extent to which they could limit Google’s location tracking by adjusting their account and device settings.
In other words, Google misled its users into thinking that they had turned off location tracking in their account settings, when, in fact, it continued to track, record, and share users’ device location data with advertisers.
“For years Google has prioritized profit over their users’ privacy. They have been crafty and deceptive. Consumers thought they had turned off their location tracking features on Google, but the company continued to secretly record their movements and use that information for advertisers,” said Attorney General Rosenblum.
Location data is a key part of Google’s digital advertising business, as it uses the personal and behavioral data it collects to build detailed user profiles and target ads.
In fact, location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects. However, location data can be used to expose a person’s identity and routines and can be used to infer personal information.
According to the DoJ’s press release, the AP article pointed out that are two settings responsible for the location data collection, “Location History” and “Web & App Activity”.
By default, the Location History is “off” unless a user turns on the setting, but “Web & App Activity”, which is a separate account setting, is automatically “on” when users set up a Google account, including all Android users. This allowed the company to collect, store and use the users’ personally identifiable location data.
“Consumer privacy is one of my office’s top priorities. That’s why it’s so important to me that Oregon played a key role in this settlement. Until we have comprehensive privacy laws, companies will continue to compile large amounts of our personal data for marketing purposes with few controls,” continued AG Rosenblum.
The settlement requires Google to be more transparent about its practices, including:
- Show additional information to users whenever they turn a location-related account setting “on” or “off”;
- Make key information about location tracking unavoidable for users (i.e., not hidden); and
- Give users detailed information about the types of location data Google collects and how it’s used at an enhanced “Location Technologies” webpage.
Additionally, the settlement also restricts Google’s use and storage of certain types of location information and requires Google account controls to be more user-friendly.
A Google spokesman in a statement said the company is now in compliance with state regulators.
“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” the statement said.
Following the settlement, Google announced that it has introduced more transparency and tools to help users manage their data and minimize the data that the company collects. The measures are:
- Launched auto-delete controls, a first in the industry, and turned them on by default for all new users, giving you the ability to automatically delete data on a rolling basis and only keep 3, 18, or 36 months’ worth of data at a time.
- Developed easy-to-understand settings like Incognito mode on Google Maps, preventing searches or places you navigate to from being saved to your account.
- Introduced more transparency tools, including Your Data in Maps and Search, which lets you quickly access your key location settings right from our core products.