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Google Accused of Tracking Users Despite Disabled Location Tracking Feature

Jonathan Walker
Jonathan loves talking politics, economics and philosophy. He carries unique perspectives on everything making him a rather odd mix of liberal-conservative with a streak of independent Austrian thought.
Published: June 11, 2021
In a press release on Monday from Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the state of Arizona filed a lawsuit against Google, alleging that the tech giant illegally collected location data from smartphone users.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich alleges that Google violated fraud statutes by illegally misleading users and collecting location data. The Google Maps app is seen on an Apple iPhone 4S on December 13, 2012 in Fairfax, California. (Image: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images)

In a press release on Monday from Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the state of Arizona filed a lawsuit against Google, alleging that the tech giant illegally collected location data from smartphone users.

Google reportedly violated state consumer fraud laws by misleading users into believing that their user data was not being collected after they disabled the location tracking feature. This is not the first time Google has been scrutinized for collecting user data.

In a statement provided to Business Insider, Google spokesperson Jose Castenada said, “The Attorney General and the contingency fee lawyers filing this lawsuit appear to have mischaracterized our services. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data.”

The suit, filed in the Maricopa County Superior Court, could result in a settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars if the tech giant is forced to pay reparations for all profits accrued through location-based advertising in the state of Arizona. Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, stated that Google advertising raked in 134.8 billion dollars in 2019 alone, which accounted for over 80 percent of its total income.

If Google is found to have violated Arizonan fraud statutes, it will have to pay restitution for using illegally tracked user locations for advertising purposes. Google could pay civil penalty charges of up to $10,000 for each instance of statute violation.

The documentation submitted in the case against the corporation included e-mails circulated among Google engineers, who expressed concerns about Google’s data collection practices following a report submitted by the Associated Press in 2018. The emails showed that the engineers agreed with the findings of the AP report.

According to the documents, an employee of Google stated, “real people just think in terms of ‘location is on’ or ‘location is off’ because that is exactly what you have on the front screen of your phone.” Another employee echoed these sentiments, stating, “Location off should mean location off, not except for this case or that case.”

The AP report stated that Google was perfectly capable of tracking user location regardless of whether or not the location setting had been disabled. As the report explained, certain Google apps defaulted to storing time-stamped data regardless of user input. For example, the Google Maps application stored a location snapshot whenever a user opened it.

In the press release announcing the lawsuit, Brnovich’s office stated, “Given the lucrative nature of Google’s advertising business, the company goes to great lengths to collect users’ location, including through presenting the users with a misleading mess of settings, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the collection of location information.”

The 48-page complaint filed by Brnovich’s office included 140 pages of exhibits redacted from public view. Other redacted pages included testimonies given by Google employees under oath, along with internal documents.

Google said that Arizona misunderstood

In response to the allegations, Google said that Arizona misunderstood its situation. According to the tech giant, the lawsuit was actually a campaign led by Oracle, which previously challenged Google in the courts over the rights to code used in Google’s Android software.

According to Bloomberg News, Oracle has been on a steady lobbying campaign to mobilize law enforcement agencies and regulators to take on Google over a plethora of issues, including privacy concerns.

In an interview with Fox, Brnovich said, “We allege when consumers try to opt out of Google collecting location data, the company is continuing to find misleading ways to obtain that information and then use it for their financial advantage.”

The suit also accused Google of pressuring smartphone manufacturers such as LG to hide frequently used privacy settings. “The reality is that the stuff we’ve uncovered is shocking. It just confirms that Google is doing everything it can to spy on everyone it can, without providing any sort of notice to anyone,” Brnovich said.