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Google coughs up $392 million for sneaky location tracking

Google has recently settled multiple privacy lawsuits from 40 states regarding its confusing and misleading Location History settings, which the company ran from 2014-2020. The company will be paying out a total of $392 million. This, according to Ars Technica’s calculation, is worth Google’s 12-hour revenue based on its latest annual revenue report of $282 billion.

Money-wise, it’s a minor spend.

If you may recall, an Associate Press (AP) exclusive in 2018 had revealed that Location History on Android devices and iPhones isn’t the “master control” for location tracking many thought it was. Even if users paused “Location History” on their phones, Google could still track and record their locations via the Web & App Activity settings. Unless both are disabled, Google could see you.

“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,” Princeton Computer Scientist Jonathan Mayer was quoted saying at the time. “This seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”

Google has been in hot water since AP’s report went live. It received lawsuits from individuals, as well as multiple Attorney Generals (AG) from different states, including Indiana, Texas, and Washington. Per the court documents, the 40 states Google settled with are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

As part of the settlement, the search engine giant also agreed to further update its privacy settings, which it say it will do in “the coming months”. These changes include:

  • Revamping user information hubs. Google will add disclosures to its Activity controls and Data & Privacy pages to help users better understand how location data improves its services. The company will also create a single information hub highlighting key location settings.
  • Simplified deletion of location data. Google will provide a “master control” to turn off location tracking from both Location History and Web & App Activity settings. This control also lets users delete their past data, including location history.
  • Updated account set-up. Google will be more thorough at giving new users information about what Web & App Activity is, what information about the user is in it, and how this information helps the company.

A lot of Google’s earnings come from targeted advertisements fuelled by data, with some surreptitiously taken without proper user consent. However, the company stressed, it has pivoted to a more privacy-friendly approach through the years, giving users more control over their data and being extra transparent with the way it communicates with its users.

“Today’s settlement is another step along the path of giving more meaningful choices and minimizing data collection while providing more helpful services,” Google said.

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Jovi Umawing

Knows a bit about everything and a lot about several somethings. Writes about those somethings, usually in long-form.