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Google settles $93 million lawsuit with California over unauthorized user data collection

A multi-year investigation by the California Department of Justice found Google tricked users when it collected, stored, and used their location data.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (CN) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a $93 million settlement with Google Thursday, resolving allegations that the tech behemoth violated state consumer protection laws when it collected users' location data without informed consent.

A multi-year investigation by the California Department of Justice found Google deceived users when it collected, stored and used their location data for consumer profiling and advertising purposes. 

“Our investigation revealed that Google was telling its users one thing — that it would no longer track their location once they opted out — but doing the opposite and continuing to track its users’ movements for its own commercial gain," Bonta said. "That’s unacceptable, and we’re holding Google accountable with today’s settlement.”

In addition to paying the state of California the $93 million penalty, Google agreed to be more transparent with users about when their location data is being collected and what it is being used for. 

Google will now have to issue pop-up notifications to users who have location history or web and app activity enabled on their Google accounts. The alerts must disclose whether location information is being collected and instruct users how to disable each setting, delete any data collected by the settings, and set data retention limits.

"Consistent with improvements we've made in recent years, we have settled this matter, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago," said José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson.

Google generated over $280 billion in revenue in 2022, $220 billion from advertising alone, according to the state's complaint. A “critical feature” of its advertising strategy is using location-based advertising to precisely target users in the areas they live and visit.  

“In addition to advertising to users based directly on their location, Google also uses their location data to build behavioral profiles of users, which can determine what ads are shown to users,” the complaint says.

Bonta's office said Google tricked users in various ways to collect their data without consent: It lied by telling users they could opt out of the collection of their location data, when in reality, the company continued to collect and store users’ location data through other means — even if users turned off location history in their account settings.

Google also deceived users about their ability to opt out of ads targeted to their location.

“Many users did not know of or understand Google’s location history and web & app activity settings, yet had unwittingly enabled them due to Google’s deceptive disclosures, thereby allowing Google to track their precise location. In addition, Google misrepresented that when users disabled ads personalization it would stop using the user’s location to target advertisements to those users, when in fact it continued to do so,” the complaint says.

Google made a “clear and direct” false statement on its location history help page that turning off location history stopped location data collection.

The help page message reads, “You can turn off location history at any point. With location history off, the places you go are no longer stored. When you turn it off for your Google account, it’s turned off for all devices associated with that Google account.”

That statement left “no room for ambiguity,” according to the complaint. But it was a lie: “Even when a user turned location history off, Google continued to collect and store that user’s location data through other sources, including a user’s web & app activity."

The complaint continues: “The location history help page statement is also false because even after a user turned off location history, Google would not delete the previously collected location history data for the user, but would continue to both store and use the data to serve geo targeted ads.”

Under the settlement terms, Google has to provide users with detailed information about the location data it collects and how it is used through a “Location Technologies” webpage; tell users that their location information may be used for personalized ads; warn users before using their location history to build ad targeting profiles; and obtain review from Google’s internal Privacy Working Group and document approval for all material changes to location-setting and ads personalization disclosures that will have a material impact on privacy.

Google has 180 days to comply with the terms of the injunction.

Categories / Business, Consumers, Government, Technology

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