Google Sued For ‘Deceptive’ Location Tracking Practices

GPS satellite navigation map location mountain © Kochneva Tetyana Shutterstock

Four attorneys general in the US are suing Google for allegedly misleading users about when it was able to track their locations

A group of attorneys general (AG) in the US are suing Alphabet’s Google in separate lawsuits, alleging ‘deceptive’ location tracking practices that invaded users’ privacy.

The AGs of Texas, Indiana, Washington state and the District of Columbia sued Google on Monday in separate lawsuits. They allege that between 2014 and 201, Google deceived users by leading them to believe that turning off “location history” settings would make the service stop tracking their whereabouts.

The AGs allege that a user’s location could still be tracked by Google unless they also turned off settings in the “Web & App Activity” section.

old map geo location compass © Triff Shutterstock

Known issue

Google describes Web & App Activity as a way to personalise experiences for users by saving searches and activity in a user’s account.

It should be noted that this location tracking is already a known issue.

Indeed Google is already facing a lawsuit in the United States for allegedly tracking phone users – regardless of privacy settings.

That 2018 lawsuit was filed after an investigation by the Associated Press found that a number of Google services running on Android and Apple devices determine the user’s location and store it, even when Google’s “Location History” setting was switched off.

Arizona’s attorney general also filed a similar lawsuit in 2020 over the matter.

And the tracking issue has been noticed on this side on the pond.

In November 2018 Google was accused of being misleading about location tracking, after consumer groups from seven European nations asked their privacy regulators to take action against the search engine giant.

Consumer groups from the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden, all filed GDPR complaints against Google’s location tracking.

They alleged that Google was tracking the movements of millions of users in breach of the European Union’s privacy laws.

Google has made some changes however. In June 2020 Google said it would automatically delete user’s website searches and visits, as well as some location data, after 18 months.

But the changes will only apply to new accounts. Existing users will have to adjust their settings when they are shown prompts.

AG lawsuits

Google’s actions did not impress the attorneys general of the four US states, and they allege that Google misled users to believe that once they turned their location history off, their whereabouts would no longer be tracked.

For example, Washington DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine alleged Google was “deceiving and manipulating consumers to gain access to their location data, including making it nearly impossible for users to stop their location from being tracked.”

“Google falsely led consumers to believe that changing their account and device settings would allow customers to protect their privacy and control what personal data the company could access,” said AG Racine.

“The truth is that contrary to Google’s representations it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data,” said AG Racine. “Googles bold misrepresentations are a clear violation of consumers’ privacy.”

“I’m proud to lead this bipartisan group of attorneys general that will hold Google accountable for its deception,” said AG Racine. “Through this lawsuit, we will hold Google accountable, and in the process, educate consumers on how their personal data – particularly sensitive data about their physical location – is collected, stored, and monetised. This result of our collective action is that consumers, not Google, will determine how their data is or is not used.”

AG Racine told CNBC in an interview on Monday that the new lawsuits are distinct (from the 2018 lawsuit and Arizonia lawsuit) in part because they include a focus on so-called dark patterns, which are design choices websites use to steer users toward a certain decision.

The lawsuit said that examples of dark patterns “include complicated navigation menus, visual misdirection, confusing wording (such as double negatives), and repeated nudging.”

Racine said it was important to include dark patterns in the complaint “because it shows the level of deception and the level of intention that many companies including Google, engage in to essentially trap the user, limit the user’s ability to keep certain areas of their life private.”

“And they do it all the while telling the user in their policy statements, that the user is in control of how the system their system operates. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Google response

“The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda was quoted by CNBC as saying in a statement.

“We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight.”

Castañeda added that the search giant has updated the way it stores and communicates to users about location settings, including by letting users automatically delete location data on a regular basis beginning in June 2019.

In June 2020, it made auto-delete the default for new accounts.

The company also has made changes to limit the way it collects location data when users search on Google, to collect the general area a user is searching from rather than a precise location.

Google also pointed to comments a judge in a similar case brought by Arizona’s attorney general made.

The comments came in response to a motion for summary judgement, where the judge declined to rule on a claim in the case before it made its way to trial.

“A reasonable fact-finder could find that a reasonable, or even an unsophisticated, consumer, would understand that at least some location information is collected through means other than [‘location history’],” the judge reportedly wrote in the recent filing.