Tech companies have recently been involved in several privacy controversies. While Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal hogged the headline for weeks, brands like Apple, YouTube, Spotify, etc. were accused of selectively suppressing conservative voices in a bid to impact the upcoming midterms. Google is no stranger to such controversies and has recently been charged with tracking a user’s location data against his wishes.
A resident from San Diego, Napoleon Patacsi, filed a lawsuit against Google in a Federal court alleging that the company was violating the constitutional privacy guarantees of the state and the California Invasion of Privacy Act by storing the location data of a user even when they had turned off the “Location History” setting.
Napoleon’s lawyers are reportedly looking for a class action status for the lawsuit since the issue in question not just affect him, but also millions of people who use Google’s services through their smartphones. Once news of Google’s storage of user location data broke out, the company quietly made some significant changes to its Help page.
While the page had earlier stated that “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored,” it now states that “this setting does not affect other location services on your device… [and that] some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps,” says Business Insider.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has also written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about Google’s immoral practice of storing user’s location data. In the three page letter to the FTC, EPIC argues that the company had broken a 2011 consent decree in which they had admittedly agreed to never misrepresent itself with regard to the practice of collecting and using user data.
“It is ordered that respondent [Google], in or affecting commerce, shall not misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication: … (1) the purpose for which it collects and uses covered information [user data], and (2) the extent to which consumers may exercise control over the collection, use, or disclosure of covered information,” Techspot quotes the document.
Meanwhile, a judge is yet to decide whether Napoleon’s case has enough merit for it to be accepted as a class-action status lawsuit.
Repeated privacy offenses
This isn’t the first time Google has been involved in a scandal in which the company has been accused of breaking the privacy rights of their users. Back in 2010, the company’s Street View cars were charged with something similar — it was found that the service was collecting user’s payload data in secret.
The company claimed that it happened due to an “error” in their code. When the Irish Data Protection Authority took up the issue, the company deleted all such collected data while having an independent third party to oversee the process.
In 2012, Google circumvented Safari’s “no-cookies policy” in order to show targeted ads to the browser’s users. This was seen to violate the privacy rights of the user and the FTC had ordered the company to pay penalties to the tune of US$22.5 million.
It is possible that Google will simply settle the current lawsuit by paying fines and never face any serious consequences. If that were to happen, it would simply be the failure of the law to protect the privacy rights of its citizens. What Google needs is a harsh punishment and a change in policy that will prevent it from breaching user privacy rights ever again.