Home Technology Explained | Why Google’s location tracking settlement made history

Explained | Why Google’s location tracking settlement made history

A sign is pictured outside a Google office near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S.

A sign is pictured outside a Google office near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

On November 14, Google has agreed with the attorneys general of 40 U.S. states to pay a historic $391.5 million settlement, over its location tracking practices, Associated Press reported.

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The multi-million dollar settlement, which was led by Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum and Nebraska AG Doug Peterson, is the largest attorney general-led consumer privacy settlement ever. 

What is the lawsuit about?

Google was found to violate state consumer protection laws by misleading its users about its location tracking practices since at least 2014. 

The company misled consumers into thinking they had turned off location tracking, when, in fact, the company continued to collect their location information and use that for advertising.

“They have been crafty and deceptive,” Oregon Attorney General Rosenblum said in a release.

“For years Google has prioritised profit over their users’ privacy,” she added.  

Location data is a key part of Google’s digital advertising business. The company uses the personal and  behavioural data it collects to build detailed user profiles and target them with ads. 

In fact, location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects. Even a limited amount of location data can expose a person’s identity, routines, and can be used to infer personal details, the release noted.

When was it sued?

The states’ investigation was triggered by an Associated Press story in 2018, which found that Google continued to track people’s location data even after they turned off location tracking by disabling a feature called “location history.”

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed the first state action against Google in May 2020 when he slammed the company for misleading the users.

Google settled the case with Arizona for $85 million last month. Yet by then, attorneys general in other states and the District of Columbia filed their individual lawsuits against the search giant for deceiving users.

What does this settlement mean for Google?

As part of the settlement, Google has agreed to significantly improve its location tracking disclosures and user controls starting next year.

The settlement requires the company to be more transparent about its practices.

Google must show additional information to users whenever they turn a location-related account setting “on” or “off.”

The company is not allowed to hide any key information about location tracking for users and it must give them details about the types of location data it collects and how it is used, at an enhanced “Location Technologies” webpage.

Will Google make any changes to its business practices?

“We will be making updates in the coming months to provide even greater controls and transparency over location data,” Google said in a blog post on Monday.

The company is creating a single, comprehensive information hub to highlight key location settings and help people make informed choices about their data. Google will put additional disclosures on their Activity controls and Data & Privacy pages. 

The search giant will allow users to easily turn off their Location History and Web & App Activity settings and delete their past data. The company will also continue to delete Location History data for users who have not recently contributed new Location History data to their account.

For users setting up new accounts, the technology company will provide a more detailed explanation of what Web & App Activity is, what information it includes, and how it helps their Google experience, the company said in the blog.

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