Google Agrees to $391.5 Million ‘Historic’ Privacy Settlement

Photo of Google HQ

Google has agreed to a “historic” $391.5 million settlement with 40 state attorneys general after being accused of collecting information about users’ locations even when they turned off location tracking, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced on Monday.

A statement from the Oregon Department of Justice said this is “the largest attorney general-led consumer privacy settlement ever.”

The settlement stems from an investigation that started in 2018 after an article by the Associated Press (AP) shed light on Google’s deceptive location tracking. The investigation revealed that Google has been tracking users without their knowledge or consent since 2014.

Besides the settlement, Google has also agreed to be more transparent about its location tracking. Although a Google blog post on Monday said the allegations are based on outdated product policies, the company said it will roll out updates in 2023 to give users “even greater controls and transparency over location data.”

Google Misled Users for Years

Before the AP exposé, most users were led to believe that if they turned off “Location History” in their Google account settings, the company wouldn’t be able to track their location. Google’s support page said, “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

It turns out that Google continues to receive data about your location unless you also turn off “Web And App Activity.” Unlike “Location History,” which is usually off, “Web And App Activity” is on by default.

While Google insists it provided “clear descriptions” of the different ways it may collect location data and how users can control location sharing, critics say it wasn’t clear enough.

“For years Google has prioritized profit over their users’ privacy,” AG Rosenblum said. “They have been crafty and deceptive. Consumers thought they had turned off their location tracking feature on Google, but the company continued to secretly record their movements and use that information for advertisers.”

What Google Must Do Now

Google uses location data to deliver targeted ads and to personalize its services, like traffic updates and recommendations.

Location data can reveal a lot about a person. “Even a limited amount of location data can expose a person’s identity and routines and can be used to infer personal details,” Oregon’s Department of Justice said.

While Google will not stop collecting location data from users who consent to this, the company will update its systems to make it clearer to users when their location data is being shared. The settlement stipulates that Google must make “information about location tracking unavoidable for users.”

In line with this, Google said it would provide additional information on its pages to show how it uses location data to improve its services. It will also make it easier for users to turn off and delete their location data.

Google’s Data Collection

This is not the first time Google has been forced to fork over a settlement over its “Web & App Activity” feature. In August, an Australian federal court fined Google $42.7 million for collecting data about users in 2018 with its “Web & App Activity” feature, which runs in the background.

Google collects massive amounts of data from users’ devices. A 2018 report from Vanderbilt University and Digital Content Next said the Google Chrome browser relays location data back to Google 340 times every 24 hours, while Android devices communicate with Google ten times more frequently than Apple’s iOS does.

You can learn more about Google’s invasive data collection, how to stop it, and how to delete the data the company has accumulated about you in our article on what Google knows about me.

Tech researcher & communications specialist
Mirza has an education background in Global Communications, has worked in advertising, marketing, journalism and television over the years while living in several different countries. He is now working to consolidate news and outreach at VPNoverview.com, while in his free time he likes to work on documentary projects, read about sociology and write about world events.