Washington attorney general sues Google for geolocation

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing Google in a bid to change how the company handles users’ personal data.

Ferguson joined the attorneys general of Texas, Indiana and the District of Columbia in filing a lawsuit on Monday, alleging the company misled consumers about its location-based services and, at times, collected data without them. consent.

In Washington, Ferguson is asking the court to tell Google to change its practices, relinquish the data it acquired, and take back the profits it made from using those tactics in the first place — plus costs. $7,500 for each violation.

“Location data is deeply personal to consumers,” he said. “Google has denied consumers the ability to choose whether [it] could track their sensitive location data to make a profit. Google continued to track individuals’ location data even after consumers told the company to stop.

“It’s not just dishonest, it’s illegal.”

In the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court, Ferguson claims that Google violated state consumer protection law by collecting, storing and using location data of consumers without their knowledge or consent and , in some cases, directly against their intention.

It’s not yet clear how many Washingtonians have been impacted by Google’s practices, but the attorney general’s office estimates there could be “hundreds of thousands of potential violations.”

State law requires that any penalties paid by Google for violations of consumer protection law be paid into the general fund, Ferguson said.

Google isn’t the only company accused of using deceptive messaging to collect data from users, which may be a way to sell more advertising, said Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization San Francisco-based nonprofit. which emphasizes digital privacy and freedom of expression.

But it is one of the most influential.

“There’s no one else doing it Google-wide, and there’s no one else having all the different inroads into your life that Google does,” Cyphers said.

Google says location data plays an important role in providing useful and meaningful experiences to consumers, according to its website. The data is used for things like directions on Google Maps, ensuring websites are displayed in the correct language, and telling consumers which restaurants are nearby – and how crowded they typically are at any given time. given.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Google began publishing anonymous, aggregated reports to track where people were going and where they weren’t, to help address the impact of the virus. For example, in Washington last week, visits to grocery stores and pharmacies were down 10% from a baseline and visits to parks were up 14%.

Google can track a person’s location using real-time signals, such as an IP address or device location, as well as using past activity on Google sites and services.

Over the past few years, the company says it has made improvements to make location data easy to manage and understand while minimizing the amount of data stored.

It launched an incognito mode for Google Maps to allow users to browse or get directions without saving any information to their Google account. And it has implemented a default automatic deletion for all new Google accounts that will automatically delete all activity data older than 18 months.

“The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate allegations and outdated assertions about our metrics,” said José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson. “We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight.”

The complaints filed Monday follow a 2018 Associated Press report that found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones were storing users’ location data even if the consumer had enabled a privacy setting that prevented Google to do it.

Washington, D.C. opened an investigation into the company in 2018. And in 2020, the Arizona Attorney General filed a lawsuit alleging that the company configured its Android mobile operating system from a way that had enriched its advertising empire and misled users about the protections granted to their personal data.

The Arizona case made it clear Google didn’t have a ‘real infrastructure or plan’ to handle user requests to disable location tracking, policy officer Jennifer King said. privacy and data at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

“I’m inclined to say that they had no interest in creating products that assumed you didn’t want to be followed by them,” she said. “I don’t think his incompetence or accidental as much as it just wasn’t a priority.”

In addition to tracking Android devices even after users turn off location access and collecting location data after users turn off “location history,” the lawsuit alleges that Google “incentives” to repeatedly users to consent to location tracking.

These nudges can take the form of a pop-up warning a user that a service like Google Maps won’t work as well if the user chooses to disable location tracking. This pop-up box is misleading, according to Ferguson and King.

The card could still perform its primary function – getting a user from one address to another, she said. He may just not be able to tell you the nearest fast food restaurant.

“They were trying to make it look like you were somehow suffering from a tired user experience because they wouldn’t be able to do the next layer of things they wanted to do, which was the personalization,” King said.

If the court rules against Google, King predicts it would lead to one of two outcomes: the court orders Google to change its practice or the court orders the company to be more transparent about the information it collection.

“If your phone tracks everywhere you go, that data is typically used to paint a picture of who you are and what you do,” King said. “There is no constraint for companies, whatever the company, which uses this knowledge.”

Ferguson said Monday that the first step was to wait for Google to respond and then start the discovery process to find more information about the company’s practices and their impact on Washington residents.

“Google is a big company and they can fight,” he said. “I’m here to see this and achieve meaningful change for Washingtonians, even if it takes time.”

About Yvonne Lozier

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