Google was tracking people even who turned off location tracking, which is kind of a problem in the era of abortion bounty hunter laws, so they’ve agreed to pay a $392 million settlement and they pinky-finger swear they’ll let you turn it off (eventually).
Tech industry observers have seen this movie before, and SFist has written this article before. The formula is basically “Google agrees to pay [x] millions of dollars for [y] egregious privacy violation,” and “[x] millions of dollars” sure sounds like a lot of money to you and me, but to Google/Alphabet “[x] millions of dollars” is the equivalent of the price of a loaf of bread. Google’s parent company Alphabet will gladly accept these slaps on the wrist, because the revenue gained from flouting regulations is lucrative, probably far more so than the fine.
But this one may be different — not because of the fine, but because it comes at a time when data brokers are selling location data that can show who’s getting abortions in states where abortion is being made illegal. KPIX and the Associated Press report that Google/Alphabet has agreed to pay a $391.5 million settlement for tracking users’ location data, even when those users had turned off their location data tracking. This thing never got to the lawsuit phase, but it was an investigation by 40 states’ attorneys general, one of whom can be seen spiking the football below.
Google gave you the impression that when you turned off location tracking, they weren’t tracking you anymore. But they were. That was wrong so 40 AGs, including me, investigated. This is the biggest-ever settlement AGs have reached related to privacy.https://t.co/myCkKA9Ocq— Attorney General Keith Ellison (@AGEllison) November 14, 2022
The Verge explains it plainly. “A coalition of attorneys general from Oregon, New York, Florida, Nebraska, and other states opened the investigation in response to a 2018 report from the Associated Press that reveals how Google silently tracked users’ locations across its various services on iPhone and Android. It alleges that from 2014 to 2019, Google misled users into thinking their location had been switched off and would then use that information to sell personalized ads.”
"This $391.5 million settlement is a historic win for consumers in an era of increasing reliance on technology," says Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who joined in the suit, in a statement. "People deserve to have greater control over — and understanding of — how their data is being used."
In a company blog post acknowledging the settlement Google and Alphabet (of course not mentioning the dollar amount) basically admit, “Yeah, you got us.” Though in typical tech company language, the blog post A) blames the regulators for nailing them on “outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” B) promises “we will be making updates in the coming months” that will supposedly allow users to wriggle out of this C) starts with five paragraphs of self-fellatio about how their fabulous location-tracking “lets us offer you a more helpful experience,” as if one goddamned person on earth actually likes and appreciates having their location tracked in order to serve them advertisements.
Google/Alphabet does promise upcoming “Revamping user information hubs” and “Simplified deletion of location data” features to manage their sale of your whereabouts, and frankly, we in the press need to hold their feet to the fire on this one. You’ve no doubt heard about abortion bounty laws in Texas and Oklahoma on a post-Roe world, where any old incel in his mom’s basement can sue for damages if he proves that anyone in that state got, aided with, or performed an abortion.
It is well-established that the third parties to whom Google sells your location data will then resell that data to pretty much anyone; a bombshell Vice report in May found that “It costs just over $160 to get a week's worth of data on where people who visited Planned Parenthood came from, and where they went afterwards.”
So the $391.5 million settlement is what’s grabbing the headlines here. But what needs to be in the headlines is how to opt out of this location tracking, once Google even launches these fixes. And given their past track record, it’s going to be crucial to keep tracking of whether the opting out actually even works.
Image: Maxim Hopman via Unsplash