Google recently agreed to pay nearly $392 million in a settlement with 40 states over allegations of the giant tech company tracking people through their devices, even after location tracking had been turned off. According to authorities, since at least 2014, Google has broken consumer protection laws by misleading users about when it secretly recorded their movements. It then proceeded to offer this covertly harvested data to digital marketers for advertisement sales – the origin of nearly all of Google’s revenue. According to attorneys general, Google’s payout is the largest-ever multistate privacy settlement in history.
Google’s advertising business relies heavily on location data. State investigators have called it the most sensitive and highly valuable personal information Google collects, as it helps the company target people with ads based on their vicinity. According to the Oregon Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum, who spearheaded the investigation alongside Nebraska, Google has prioritized profits over their users’ privacy for years.
A portion of the settlement also requires Google to commit to a number of changes to ensure the company’s location-tracking practices are more transparent. This includes providing users with more information when they turn location tracking on or off, as well as providing routine detailed rundowns of the location data collected by Google on a webpage consumers will have access to.
Google provided a statement to NPR claiming the practices outlined by prosecutors were old and have been revamped since they were first put in place. Google spokesperson José Castañeda stated, “Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago.” Following the settlement, Google also reported it now allows people to use Google Maps in so-called ‘Incognito mode,’ which should prevent location data from being saved on a person’s account.
The states’ settlement with Google over online privacy comes as lawmakers in Washington debate over passing comprehensive data privacy legislation in the United States. Despite the passage of a national privacy law having support from both parties, Congress has failed to act, causing the U.S. to fall behind Europe’s progress in creating robust data protection laws. Given this lack of nationwide direction on data privacy issues, individual states have been left to pass their own online privacy protections. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia – have enacted comprehensive consumer data privacy laws.
The state prosecutors reported they first launched an investigation after a 2018 report by the Associated Press showed many of Google’s services on iPhones and Android devices were saving users’ location data despite location tracking having been turned off in users’ privacy settings. State prosecutors have used Google’s settlement as a means to call upon Washington lawmakers to pass nationwide data protections. Oregon AG Rosenblum noted, “Until we have comprehensive privacy laws, companies will continue to compile large amounts of our personal data for marketing purposes, with few controls.” It will be interesting to see how Google procures our personal data to secure their advertisement income in the future.