Four Attorneys General (AG) from the District of Columbia and the states of Indiana, Texas, and Washington have filed separate lawsuits agains Google for allegedly misleading its users into believing that they are no longer tracking their location when they deliberately pause the "Location History" setting on mobile devices.
All four AG's allege that users are still being tracked by Google without them knowing unless they also turn off the settings in the Web & App Activity section, too. The deception, they say, happened between 2014 and 2019.
What moved AGs to go after Google
These allegations were based on an exclusive Associate Press report back in 2018 where it was revealed that many Google services on both Android and iPhone devices can store location data even when users set their devices not to. The AP proved this by conducting its own investigation and had its findings confirmed by Princeton computer science researchers.
Google has been upfront, for the most part, about asking permission to use one's location information, according to the report. However, it's seen as deceptive that Google explicitly mentions in its own support page that places that the user has been are no longer stored once they turn off Location History, but still somehow tracks users via other apps (e.g. weather apps) without their consent.
The article also mentions that using Google Search on a phone's browser, something that shouldn't really rely on a user's location data, can accurately pinpoint one's precise latitude and longitude and save it to their Google account.
"If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off," Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist from Princeton, had been quoted saying. "This seems like a pretty straightforward position to have."
A Yale Privacy Lab researcher, Sean O'Brien, was also referenced saying it is "disingenuous" for the seach giant to continue to record locations even when users disable Location History.
According to the suit, Google employees expressed surprise upon learning that their company is still collecting data via the Web & App Activity setting.
Homing in on dark patterns
The four lawsuits focused on how Google relies on dark patterns, which is defined as subtle cues or tactics that urges one to make choices that might be to their detriment.
You can listen more about dark patterns in our S02E09 Lock & Code podcast episode entitled
"Shining a light on dark patterns with Carey Parker"
One example, with regard to this case, is the repeated prompting to enable location in certain apps while simultaneously claiming that the app won't function the way it's intended to if location is not enabled.
"Google also uses dark patterns in 'in-product' prompts to enable Google Account settings—i.e., prompts to enable these settings when a user begins to use Google apps and services on a device," the report reads, "However, these products could properly function without users agreeing to constant tracking. For example, Maps and Google Now did not "need" Location History in order to perform its basic functions and, in fact, both products would continue to function if the user later took a series of actions to disable Location History."
"Because Google’s statements falsely implied that users were not free to decline Google Account settings if they wished to use certain (often preinstalled) Google products as they were intended, users were left with effectively no choice but to enable these settings."
The AG also criticized the way the search giant designed the set-up process of its products, which limits or takes away the user's ability to decide on whether they consent to Google tracking them or not as they use these products.
"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 Attorney General Karl Racine of the District of Columbia in a statement. "The truth is that contrary to Google's representations it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data."
Speaking on behalf of Google, José Castañeda said in an email statement: "The Attorneys General are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings."
"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."
A similar past lawsuit won the day
This isn't the first time Google received a lawsuit regarding location tracking. In 2020, Attorney General Mark Brnovich of Arizona filed a similar lawsuit to stop Google from continuously tracking its consumers in the state, in spite of them disabling location tracking, so they can be targeted with ads.
A state judge has recently given the suit the green light to move towards trial.
“Great win for Arizona consumers today," Brnovich said in a statement, "For too long, the company has used deceptive and unfair practices to allegedly obtain users’ location data to help fund its lucrative advertising business. We will not stand by as Big Tech continues to invade Arizonans' personal privacy."