Google agrees to $391.5m settlement in privacy lawsuit

US states threw privacy challenge at web giant

Google will pay $391.5 million to settle a location tracking lawsuit brought against it by 40 US states that claimed the big data behemoth continued surveilling consumers' movements even after these users explicitly told the Chocolate Factory to stop tracking them.

It then used this data to rake in advertising dollars, according to the states' attorneys general.

The payout represents the largest multi-state privacy settlement in US history, according to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson who led the lawsuit. Those two states will also receive a sizable piece of the settlement money from Google: $14.8 million for Oregon and $11.9 million for Nebraska. 

"For years Google has prioritized profit over their users' privacy," Rosenblum said in a statement. "They have been crafty and deceptive. Consumers 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."

In addition to paying the states nearly $392 million, Google also agreed to take several measures to make it easier for users to turn off location tracking and delete their past data, plus promising to be more transparent about what types and sources of location information it collects. 

Google, per the settlement agreement [PDF], does not admit to any wrongdoing or violating any laws.  

"Consistent with improvements we've made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago," Google spokesperson José Castañeda told The Register

Castañeda also directed The Register to a blog posted today that outlines some of the changes Google will make "in the coming months to provide even greater controls and transparency over location data."

This is the second privacy lawsuit Google has settled with US states in as many months. In October, Google agreed to pay $85 million to settle a similar lawsuit in which the Arizona attorney general also alleged deceptive tracking practices.

Google faces more of these fines in the future: In January, attorneys general of Indiana, Texas, Washington state, and Washington DC filed lawsuits against Google alleging that the search giant uses deceptive user interface designs known as "dark patterns" to obtain customer location data without adequate consent.

Many of these legal battles, including the lawsuits brought against Google by the 40 states that announced a settlement today, stemmed from a 2018 Associated Press article that said the search giant tracked smartphones even when users disabled a "location history" setting. 

Due to the design of its software, there were still plenty of ways the tech goliath could discover and store one's whereabouts through the use of their devices. In other words, disabling "location history" didn't actually fully do that.

In the course of their investigation, the attorneys general found that Google violated state consumer protection laws by misleading consumers about its location tracking practices since at least 2014. They sued Google to stop these practices in 2020.

"That is an unacceptable invasion of consumer privacy, and a violation of state law," Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement about today's settlement. "People deserve to have greater control over — and understanding of — how their data is being used." ®

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