The tech giant is accused of "manipulating" users to perform systematic surveillance.
Washington state and the District of Columbia, as well as Texas and Indiana, are suing Google for deliberately misleading users in order to collect their location data. The lawsuit alleges that Google has manipulated its customers by allowing them to believe that they had successfully disabled location tracking.
Three general attorneys, including Washington DC's Karl A. Racine, have stated that Google's misrepresentations are not only a clear violation of user privacy, but that they make it almost impossible for anyone to keep their location data confidential.
In a statement, Racine went on to say:
Google falsely led consumers to believe that changing their account and device settings would allow customers to protect their privacy and control what personal data the company could access. The truth is that, contrary to Google's representations, it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data.
Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesperson, responded:
The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight.
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) claims that Google has routinely deceived its users by not being transparent about how location information is tracked and stored. Similarly, the OAG has said that it believes that there is no way for a user to prevent Google from profiting off this data, or collecting it in the first place, although Google may have led them to believe otherwise.
BREAKING: My office is suing Google for deceiving users and invading their privacy.— AG Karl A. Racine (@AGKarlRacine) January 24, 2022
Google claims that changing your device and account settings protects your data. The truth is, since 2014, Google has systematically surveilled users no matter what settings they choose.
The lawsuit builds on a 2018 report by the Associated Press, which uncovered that Google apps on iOS and Android had continuously recorded user locations even when those users had selected privacy options meant to prevent this.
Google's "Location History" setting seemingly gave users the ability to pause location data collection. However, an entirely separate setting, called "Web & App Activity", continued to record time-stamped data, including locations, and all without user permission.
According to the AP article, Google was accused of perpetuating a "dark pattern design" to nudge users into making decisions actively opposed to their own interests – and digital privacy.
What are the OAG's objectives?
The OAG intends to pursue an injunction to prevent Google from continuing with its "unlawful" tracking practices, as well as force the tech giant into coughing up profits derived from the data it had collected from misled users.
Running the legal gauntlet
Of course, Google is no stranger to scandal and has become embroiled in countless legal battles over the decades. A lawsuit originally issued in May 2020 by the state of Arizona is currently pending and concerns the company's voracious appetite for, and collection of, user data.
In October and December 2020, two similar lawsuits targeted Google's monopoly over search advertising and its manipulation of publishers and advertisers. The tech company was accused of inflating the price of advertisements to suppress competition and maintain its chokehold over the advertising sales market.
And questions about Google's invasive approach to data collection span the breadth of its apps. It's a well-known fact that Google scans the emails you send – and even examines them as you're writing them. The AI-powered Smart Compose setting can suggest words and phrases to help you flesh out your message, and whilst that's handy in a pinch, it's a clear indicator that Google has eyes on your communications. Google itself even admitted this in 2018, claiming that employees can take a look at emails "in very specific cases where you ask us to and give consent, or where we need to for security purposes, such as investigating a bug or abuse".
Information is power… and profit
Consumers have never been more plugged-in to how and why their data is being collected. This has led to increasing demand for accountability from Big Tech – which isn't necessarily a good thing for Google, considering its checkered past when it comes to protecting user privacy.
We tend to think of Google as a tech company with a suite of tools, covering everything from searching the web, to AI and virtual gaming, but in actuality, it's an advertising behemoth.
Google collects data from users all around the world; this includes purchases, searches, browsing habits, preferences, and anything else that can be used to create a cohesive digital profile of an individual. This data is then used to facilitate colossal ad sales. Your data, your digital life, is Google's bread and butter, and the company's advertising business soared 43.2% in the third quarter of 2021, to $53.1 billion.
So, the OAG's lawsuit probably won't remain the most recent for long, but it does underline the chilling value of a person's whereabouts – as well as how difficult it can be to keep that information uncollected and unmonetized.