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Google reaches $392M settlement over location data

Dozens of states accused the tech giant of misrepresenting and omitting information about how it collected location data and shared it with third parties.

(CN) — Google joined attorneys general in 40 states on Monday in announcing the settlement of a lawsuit accusing the company of violating consumer protection laws by recording and sharing user location data without comprehensive disclosures or the ability to easily opt-out.

The tech giant will pay $391.5 million to settle the claims, as well as take measures to ensure information about the data is more transparent. 

The settlement agreement states that between 2014 and 2019, “Google misrepresented and omitted material information regarding the location history and web & app activity settings … [confusing] users about how location information would be captured, stored and used without users’ knowledge or consent.”

During that time, even if a user had turned off location history, Google continued to track their location through other account settings, other apps or device-level features, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scans and IP addresses, among other methods, according to the agreement. The company is said to have learned about user movements through apps including Google Maps, Google Play and YouTube, even if the user was not signed into their account. 

Google did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Under the agreement, Google will post pop-up notifications to users who have location history or web and app activity enabled at the time of the notification “disclosing whether these settings collect location information and instructing users how to disable each setting, delete the data collected by the settings, and set data retention limits.”

Along with other concessions, the company will maintain a dedicated web page with comprehensive details about its location data practices and user rights and controls, while it has also agreed to certain limitations on the use and retention of location data. For example, Google must refrain from providing a user’s precise location to third parties without express affirmative consent. Google will automatically delete most personally identifying location data between 30 and 180 days after it was collected and submit annual compliance reports for a period of four years. 

In a statement Monday, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry called the agreement “the largest multistate attorney general privacy settlement in the history of the United States,” adding his state will receive $12.7 million.

"I have been ringing the alarm bell on Big Tech for years, and this is why," Landry said. "Citizens must be able to make informed decisions about what information they release to Big Tech. Additionally, Big Tech must recognize the limitations in their collection efforts as it relates to various state laws."

Landry credited a 2018 Associated Press article for the states’ investigation, adding that Google uses location data to financially benefit from targeted advertising sales. 

A statement from Google on Monday noted the company has provided its users more “choice and transparency” about location data in recent years, including the introduction of auto-delete controls, incognito mode and tools to show how location data is collected and shared. 

“Consistent with those improvements, we settled an investigation with 40 U.S. state attorneys general based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” the statement read. “As well as a financial settlement, we will be making updates in the coming months to provide even greater controls and transparency over location data. Today’s settlement is another step along the path of giving more meaningful choices and minimizing data collection while providing more helpful services.”

Other updates under development include clear and concise disclosures, simplified comprehensive location history deletion and more up-front information for new accounts. 

Arizona first sued Google over the location tracking in state court in 2020. It reached an $85 million settlement with the company last month, but that didn't resolve claims that had since been filed by attorneys general in other states.

Louisiana was joined in Monday's settlement by Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, 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.

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