Google to pay nearly $400 million for 'cunning and deceptive' location tracking

bLUMBERG—Google has agreed to pay a total of $391.5 million to 40 U.S. states to resolve investigations into the company’s location-tracking practices, in what state officials are calling the largest such privacy settlement in the history of USA.

The division of Alphabet Inc. will “significantly improve” its disclosures about location tracking and user controls starting next year as part of the deal, according to a statement released Monday by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenbloom, who is leading the negotiations with her Nebraska counterpart, Doug Peterson.

Rosenbloom called Google’s practices “devious and deceptive.”

“For years, Google has prioritized profit over the privacy of its users,” she said. “Users thought they had turned off their location tracking features on Google, but the company continued to secretly record their movements and use that information for advertisers.”

Abortion and privacy

Location history has become a particularly sensitive topic since the US Supreme Court’s ruling overturning abortion rights, amid concerns that police and prosecutors could use such data to track women’s movements and enforce state bans. Google previously said it would automatically delete records of user visits to sensitive locations, including abortion clinics, in response to concerns.

The multi-state investigation was sparked by a 2018 Associated Press article that reported Google “records your movements even when you specifically tell it not to,” according to a separate statement from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. States cited issues with two Google Account settings: Location History and Web & App Activity.

Google said the policies in question are long gone.

“Consistent with the improvements we’ve made in recent years, we settled this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

Privacy and ad sales

Google may track users’ location with sensors on their devices that connect to GPScell towers and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals, New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a statement, adding that it could use those signals to track someone’s location “both outside and inside buildings,” he said.

“Digital platforms like Google cannot claim to provide privacy controls to users, then turn around and ignore those controls to collect and sell data to advertisers,” Platkin said.

In 2020, Arizona sued Google over the practice and earlier this year secured a settlement $85 million settlement. That complaint accuses Google of violating the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by collecting location data even after users have opted out of a feature.

Nessel said the transparency requirements of the 40-nation agreement “will ensure that Google not only informs users how their location data is used, but also how to change their account settings if they wish to disable account settings related to location, delete collected data and set data retention limits.”

Separately, Meta Platforms Inc. will pay $90 million to settle a lawsuit over Facebook’s use of browser cookies and the Like button to track user activity. The agreement became final approval from a federal court in California on November 10.

(Adds comments from the Oregon Attorney General in the first section and from the New Jersey AG in the third.)

– With help from Julia Love.

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