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Location-tracking: Google agrees to pay $392 million to 40 US states

Google has agreed to a $391.5 million settlement with 40 states to end an investigation into how the search giant tracked users’ locations, state attorneys general announced Monday.

People walk inside the Oculus in New York.
People walk inside the Oculus in New York. | (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

The states’ investigation was prompted by a 2018 Associated Press report that found Google continued to track people’s location data even after they opted out by disabling a feature called location history.

The attorneys general called the settlement a historic victory for consumers and the largest multistate privacy settlement in US history.

It comes at a time when politicians and regulators are increasingly concerned about the privacy and surveillance practices of tech companies. The Supreme Court’s decision in June to end constitutional protections for abortion raised potential privacy concerns for women looking for information about the procedure or related topics online.

In an era of increasing reliance on technology, this $391.5 million settlement is a historic win for consumers, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement. Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, and there are a variety of reasons why a consumer may choose not to be tracked.

urging consumers to do a little personal inventory of their online settings and turn them off if they don’t want them at a press conference.

To say we live in a surveillance economy is not an exaggeration, he said. Be aware that your location is being tracked every minute of every day.

Google stated that the issues were resolved several years ago.

In keeping with recent improvements, we have settled this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago, said company spokesperson Jose Castaneda.

Location tracking can assist technology companies in selling digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers in their immediate vicinity. It’s another tool in Google’s data-gathering toolbox, which generates more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue, accounting for the majority of profits flowing into Alphabet’s coffers which has a market value of $1.2 trillion.

The Associated Press reported in 2018 that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store users’ location data even if they have a privacy setting that says Google cannot do so. At the request of the Associated Press, Princeton computer scientists confirmed these findings.

Storing such data poses privacy risks and has been used by police to track down suspects.

According to the Associated Press, the privacy issue with location tracking affected approximately 2 billion users of devices running Google’s Android operating software, as well as hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search.

The attorneys general who investigated Google stated that location data is a critical component of the company’s digital advertising business, and that it is the most sensitive and valuable personal data the company collects. They claim that even a small amount of location data can reveal a person’s identity and routines.

According to state officials, Google uses location information to target consumers with advertisements from its customers.

According to the attorneys general, Google has been misleading users about its location tracking practices since at least 2014, in violation of state consumer protection laws.

Google agreed as part of the settlement to make those practices more transparent to users. This includes showing them more information when they toggle location account settings on and off, as well as maintaining a webpage that informs users about the data Google collects.

According to internal documents that have since surfaced in consumer-fraud lawsuits, the shadowy surveillance exposed by The Associated Press concerned even some Google engineers, who recognized the company could be facing a massive legal headache after the story was published.

Tong, the Connecticut Attorney General, thanked the Associated Press for its story, which he said “set the table for the states’ investigation” and helped expose the tracking practices.

He claims that a new Connecticut consumer-privacy law that goes into effect next year will require people to opt in to any location tracking rather than having to turn it off.

In May 2020, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed the first state action against Google, alleging that the company defrauded its users by misleading them into believing they could keep their whereabouts private by turning off location tracking in their software settings. Arizona settled its case with Google for $85 million last month, but by then, attorneys general from several other states and the District of Columbia had filed their own lawsuits against Google, seeking to hold the company accountable for its alleged deception.

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Location-tracking: Google agrees to pay $392 million to 40 US states