Privacy fine: Google to pay nearly $392 million

Google building in Mountain View, California
As part of the settlement, Google also committed to greater transparency. (Source: IMAGO / Christian Offenberg)

Google has reached an agreement with 40 US states to pay a fine of 391.5 million US dollars. The state attorneys general had concluded in an investigation that the company had collected location data from users even though they had deactivated the location history.

It was the largest state-level privacy settlement in U.S. history, the New Jersey attorney general’s office announced Monday. Ellen Rosenblum, who as Oregon’s attorney general had co-led the investigation with Nebraska, said, “For years Google has prioritized profit over their users’ privacy.”

In their investigation, authorities had found that Google did not adequately inform users about its collection of location data between 2014 and 2019. Google had told consumers they could turn off location data collection in their Google account under “Location History”, but failed to point out that location collection was also turned on under “Web and App Activities” and needed to be disabled.

This had led to millions of users of Google apps such as “Maps” not knowing that their location was being stored. Google misled its users, the U.S. attorneys general criticized. They said the company violated state consumer protection laws.

Rosenblum said, “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.”

Google introduces new deletion feature

In total, Google must now pay $391.5 million and the sum will be divided among the states. The company has also committed to greater transparency as part of the settlement. In the future, Google must show its users additional information when they change location-based settings. The company must also provide detailed information on the subject.

In a blog post, Google said some of the practices objected to in the investigation had already been changed years ago. In addition, a new feature that allows users to more easily delete their location data is expected to be introduced in the coming months, among other things.

The investigation was triggered by research conducted by the Associated Press (AP) news agency in 2018, when AP reported that many Google services on Android smartphones and iPhones continued to collect location data when location history was turned off.

Google uses location data for advertising

Location data is an important part of Google’s advertising business, the New York attorney general announced. The company uses this information to create detailed user profiles and enables its advertisers to target ads.

Location data is among the most sensitive personal information. The attorneys general criticize that even a small amount of data could reveal people’s identities and habits. It could also be used to draw conclusions about other personal information.

Data protectionists and civil rights activists have long pointed out the sensitivity of location data. This is also because US law enforcement agencies can demand that such data be handed over (in German). These “geofence warrants” are controversial. The civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), for example, sees them as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

As recently as the summer, organizations such as Access Now, Amnesty International USA and Fight For the Future appealed to Google to stop collecting location data.

Further US states file lawsuits

A total of 40 US states have joined the settlement, including Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

In October, Google had also reached a similar settlement in Arizona, agreeing to pay $85 million. The state attorney general there had also begun its investigation following the 2018 AP report.

In January, the attorneys general of Indiana, Texas, Washington, and the District of Columbia had also filed lawsuits against Google. They also accuse the company of deceiving consumers to gain access to their location data.

In Europe, the Irish Data Protection Authority launched an investigation into Google’s processing of location data in 2020 after consumer protection organizations complained. (js)