Google continued to track users even after they turned off location tracking settings
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson will file a lawsuit today against technology giant Google for deceptively leading consumers to believe that they have control over how their location data is collected and used by Google. In reality, consumers cannot effectively prevent Google from collecting, storing and profiting from their location data.
Google collects data on the location of its users even after consumers turn off “Location History” in their account settings. This deception is profitable for Google. Google’s ability to target ads to users based on information about their locations is critical to the success of its billion-dollar advertising business.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, to be filed in King County Superior Court, asserts Google uses a number of deceptive and unfair practices to obtain users’ “consent” to be tracked. As a result, it is nearly impossible for users to stop Google from collecting their location data. These practices include hard-to-find location settings, misleading descriptions of location settings, repeated nudging to enable location settings and incomplete disclosures of Google’s location data collection.
“Location data is deeply personal for consumers,” Ferguson said. “This information reveals the most significant details of our lives. Google denied consumers the ability to choose whether Google could track their sensitive location data to make a profit. Google kept tracking individuals’ location data even after consumers told the corporation to stop. This is not only dishonest — it’s unlawful.”
Google collects location data even when consumers disable “Location History”
Google profits significantly from using consumer data to sell advertising. In 2020, Google made nearly $150 billion from advertising. Location data is key to Google’s advertising business. Consequently, it has a financial incentive to dissuade users from withholding access to that data.
When users enable a setting called “Location History,” Google saves data on users’ location to, as it says in its account settings, “give you personalized maps, recommendations based on places you've visited, and more.”
Google told users that when Location History was disabled, the company did not continue to store the user’s location. For years, Google’s help page stated, “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That statement was false. For example, the company collects location data under a separate setting — “Web & App Activity” — that is defaulted “on” for all Google Accounts.
In August 2018, the Associated Press published a story about the confusing Location History and Web & App Activity settings. “Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to,” the story read. “Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.”
Even Google employees expressed surprise upon learning that the company was collecting location data under the seemingly unrelated Web & App Activity setting. In internal discussions, Google employees agreed that Google’s disclosures regarding Location History were “definitely confusing” and that the user interface for Google Account settings “feels like it is designed to make things possible, yet difficult enough that people won’t figure it out.”
In these discussions, one employee admitted, “I did not know Web & App Activity had anything to do with location.”
Despite these news reports, this deceptive conduct remains ongoing. In the aftermath of the AP story, Google made some changes to its language about location settings — however, Google continues tracking location data even after consumers turn off “Location History.”
Google tracks Android devices, even with location access off
Location tracking controls are even more convoluted for Android device users, who have to navigate a complicated web of settings on both their device and their Google account. Google did not make this clear to users. For example, a Google webpage titled “Manage your Android’s device location settings” described Google’s location-based settings and discussed Location History — yet made no mention of the Web & App Activity setting.
In addition, Android phones include a “master switch” in the phone’s location settings which, when toggled off, supposedly turns off location tracking for all apps on Android devices. However, Google continues to seek out location data from consumers who disable the location master switch, instead using other information, such as an IP address, to infer the user’s location.
In other words, even when a user’s device is set to deny Google access to location data, the company finds a way to continue to ascertain the user’s location. As one Google employee put it, “Real people just think in terms of ‘location is on,’ ‘location is off’ because that’s exactly what you have on the front screen of your phone.”
Google repeatedly nudges users to consent to location tracking
Google deceptively designed its devices to prompt users to turn on Location History. For example, in the set-up process for some Google products, such as Google Maps, Google Now and Google Assistant, Google included a prompt to turn on Location History, claiming that these products “need” or “depend” on the feature. However, these products could properly function without users agreeing to constant tracking.
Google does not give users the choice to decline location tracking once and for all. For example, if users decline to enable Location History when first prompted while setting up their Android device, Google continues to repeatedly prompt users to enable it when using Google products.
These prompts list the purported benefits of location tracking to consumers — like more “personalized” recommendations — but never explain that Google uses the data to profit through its advertising business.
By repeatedly “nudging” users to enable Google Account settings, Google increases the chances that a user will enable the setting inadvertently or out of frustration. Google has never provided similarly frequent prompts to opt out of location sharing.
Google’s conduct violates the Consumer Protection Act
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that Google violated the Washington State Consumer Protection Act by collecting, storing and using consumers’ location data without their knowledge or consent, or even directly against users’ intent.
The lawsuit asks the court to stop Google from continuing its unlawful conduct. In addition, the lawsuit asks the court to order Google to:
- Pay monetary penalties under the Consumer Protection Act of up to $7,500 per violation. The Attorney General's Office estimates there are a massive number of potential violations of the Consumer Protection Act — likely reaching into the hundreds of thousands of potential violations.
- Relinquish the profits it made from its deceptive practices.
- Give up the data acquired from its deceptive conduct.
Assistant attorneys general Andrea Alegrett, Dan Davies, Joe Kanada, Kathleen Box and Ben Brysacz, as well as paralegals Jen Killoren and Judy Lim, and legal assistant Chris Kiefer are handling the case for Washington.
Other actions against Google
In December 2020, Ferguson and a bipartisan coalition of 38 attorneys general filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Google. The lawsuit asserts that Google illegally leverages its dominance in the online search and search advertising markets to stifle competing platforms, drive advertisers away from rival search engines, and limit competing specialized sellers’ ability to bring customers directly to their sites from general Google search results.
In June, Ferguson announced Google paid $423,659.76 to Washington’s Public Disclosure Transparency Account for violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which Washingtonians adopted by initiative in 1972. This is the second lawsuit against Google for similar violations. In 2018, Google paid Washington state $217,000 to resolve Ferguson’s lawsuit accusing the company of violating Washington campaign finance disclosure laws that require political advertisers to maintain information about those who purchase advertising and make that information available to the public.
Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.email@example.com
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