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Four AGs Sue Google for Allegedly Tracking You Without Permission

FABRICE COFFRINI | AFP | Getty Images
  • Four AGs are suing Google for allegedly misleading users about when the company was able to track their location.
  • The AGs allege that Google profited from the deception by fueling its advertising business with such data.
  • Google already faced a similar lawsuit from Arizona, where a judge cast doubt on the state's arguments.

Four attorneys general are suing Google for allegedly misleading users about when the company was able to track their location.

The bipartisan group of attorneys general from the District of Columbia, Indiana, Texas and Washington allege in separate lawsuits filed Monday that Google deceived users from at least 2014 to 2019 by leading them to believe that turning off "location history" settings would make the service stop tracking their whereabouts. But, the AGs allege, a user's location could still be tracked by Google unless they also turned off settings in the "Web & App Activity" section.

Google describes Web & App Activity as a way to personalize experiences for users by saving searches and activity in a user's account.

The AGs allege that Google misled users to believe that once they turned their location history off, their whereabouts would no longer be tracked.

"Yet, even when consumers explicitly opted out of location tracking by turning 'location history' off, Google nevertheless recorded consumers' locations via other means," the Washington lawsuit alleges. "Although Web & App Activity setting is automatically enabled for all Google accounts, the company's disclosures during 'Google Account' creation did not mention or draw consumers' attention to the setting until 2018," the suit charges.

A 2018 report from the Associated Press revealed the basis of the allegations in the lawsuits.

Arizona's attorney general brought a similar lawsuit in 2020, but D.C. AG Karl Racine said in an interview with CNBC Monday the new lawsuits are distinct in part because they include a focus on so-called dark patterns, which are design choices websites use to steer users toward a certain decision. The lawsuit said that examples of dark patterns "include complicated navigation menus, visual misdirection, confusing wording (such as double negatives), and repeated nudging."

Racine said it was important to include dark patterns in the complaint "because it shows the level of deception and the level of intention that many companies including Google, engage in to essentially trap the user limit the user's ability to keep certain areas of their life private. And they do it all the while telling the user in their policy statements, that the user is in control of how the system their system operates. That couldn't be farther from the truth."

The AGs allege that Google profited from the deception by fueling its advertising business with such data. The lawsuits specifically request the court to require Google to offload any algorithms created with the allegedly ill-gotten gains, alongside monetary profits.

The request for algorithms to be included in the prayer for relief is relatively unique, but Racine said it was an important one to deter other companies from pursuing similar types of alleged deception.

"If you have gotten access to a whole body of information that you clearly have programmed and made an algorithm to profit from, I would suggest that that is ascertainable information," Racine said. "And therefore, we should figure out how much money Google has made using, in this case, D.C. user data on geolocation. Because we'd like to have that money back."

"The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings," Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. "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."

Castañeda added that the Alphabet-owned search giant has updated the way it stores and communicates to users about location settings, including by letting users automatically delete location data on a regular basis beginning in June 2019. In June 2020, it made auto-delete the default for new accounts. The company also has made changes to limit the way it collects location data when users search on Google, to collect the general area a user is searching from rather than a precise location.

Google also pointed to comments a judge in a similar case brought by Arizona's attorney general made. The comments came in response to a motion for summary judgement, where the judge declined to rule on a claim in the case before it made its way to trial.

"A reasonable fact-finder could find that a reasonable, or even an unsophisticated, consumer, would understand that at least some location information is collected through means other than ['location history']," the judge wrote in the recent filing.

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