Google Pays $392 Million In Historic Location-Tracking Settlement

On November 14th, Google agreed to pay a staggering $392 million settlement over allegations about dubious privacy and location tracking practices. The settlement covered 40 states and resolved an investigation about Google misleading users to believe their location wasn’t being tracked when it was. The settlement constitutes yet another stain on Google’s dense history of privacy violation lawsuits. 

In addition to paying a large sum, Google agreed to make fundamental changes aimed at informing users and granting them more control over their location history.

Google Gets Caught Out (Yet Again)

Amidst a landscape of growing privacy concerns, allegations were set in motion against Google by a coalition of attorneys general from 40 states. The resulting settlement is the largest multistate privacy-related settlement in U.S. history so far. 

Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon’s attorney general, who spearheaded the case alongside Nebraska’s attorney general, accused Google of being “crafty and deceptive.” She highlights how Google has “prioritized profit” over user privacy. Authorities indicate that Google has been breaking consumer protection laws by secretly tracking users’ location since at least 2014. 

The investigation began in 2018 following a press release featuring findings by Gunes Acar, a postdoctoral privacy researcher at Princeton University. Acar demonstrates how Google tracked his location despite his Android location settings being turned “off.” 

The map above shows how Acars movements were tracked over the course of several days, despite his Android location setting being “switched off.”  

Jonathan Mayer, former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission notes how “storing location data in violation of a user’s preferences is wrong.” He also says “if you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all places where you maintain location history should be turned off.”  

Location history is often given to law enforcement to identify suspects during criminal investigations. State investigators note it to be “”the most sensitive and valuable personal information” collected by Google. It also helps giant tech companies sell digital ads to vendors seeking to target consumers in their local area.  

According to the Los Angeles Times, location history data generates more than $200 billion in revenue for Google each year, making up the largest portion of profit for Alphabet, Google’s parent company — a crystal clear motive. 

The settlement comes only weeks after Google settled another lawsuit in Arizona on similar charges, paying $85 million to authorities. In communications with CNN, Google spokesperson José Castañeda insists the investigation was based on “outdated product policies,” which begs the question about their evident willingness to settle investigations. 

A Trustworthy Service Provider? Google’s History of Violations

As public trust in the tech conglomerate continues to deteriorate, Google is becoming increasingly known for violating user privacy interests. Far from being a stranger to the defense bench in data privacy lawsuits, the company’s history is brimming with privacy-related class-action lawsuits:

    • ⛔ 2014: Despite Google claiming its system wasn’t compromised, nearly 5 million user passwords were published online in a large-scale data breach.
    • ⛔ 2019: Google agrees to pay $13 million in Street View privacy lawsuit after admitting that cars gathering Street View shots also illegally collected emails, passwords, and other private information from Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries. 
    • 2019: Google pays $170 million fine for violating child privacy laws by failing to receive parental consent before collecting data from minors.
    • 2020: Despite claiming to have informed users about its data policy for incognito browsing, the lawsuit alleges Google failed to properly inform users about its data harvesting practices in the so-called “private browser.” 
    • 2022: The state of Texas sues Google for collecting citizens’ biometric data without obtaining consent in what was called “blatant defiance of the law.”

While these cases capture Google’s alarmingly negligent attitude towards its billions of users, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg of Google’s history of privacy violation lawsuits. Despite Google’s omnipotence in everyday life, it’s important to acknowledge that, as a private company, it has profit-related motives dictating moves behind the scenes.

Google’s Promises for the Future

Aside from the whopping sum paid to resolve investigations Google also agrees to make several changes to increase transparency and user control. Here are some changes to expect in the near future:

          • Access to a single “information hub” displaying information about data policies for when location is turned “off.”
          • Increased transparency about how Google handles your personal data with a web page highlighting its data collection practices.
          • Ability to use Google Maps in so-called “incognito mode.”
          • Possibility to auto-delete user data.

Read Google’s blog post about its new location history features.

If history offers insight about Google’s prevailing economic interests over user privacy concerns, it might proclaim low expectations amidst the high hopes. 

A Greater Need For Privacy

With digital technology reshaping marketing landscapes and data-hungry marketeers prowling for your personal data, digital life has become increasingly complex to navigate. And despite calls from both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S. for tighter data privacy laws, congress has neglected to act, falling behind data privacy standards in Europe. 

If you’re concerned about your digital privacy, use CyberGhost VPN to limit personal data collection.

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