California hits Google for $93M over deceptive location data options

A lawsuit filed against Google by California's Attorney General over the company's deceptive and misleading options for managing location data has resulted in a $93 million settlement — and new protections for consumers in the state.

As detailed in an incredibly straightforward complaint, Google in several ways appeared to promise users that they could choose whether or how much location data was used in order to target them for advertisements.

Location History is one of several detailed records Google keeps of your activity — you can turn it off here if you haven't already.

This particular setting is off by default, but users were repeatedly told they should "enhance" their Google Maps experience, with the responses "Yes, I'm in" or "Skip for now." Little did they know agreeing would turn on Location History for purposes far beyond "enhancing" Maps.

If you kept your Location History off, though, Google assured you that "the places you go to are no longer stored." This was totally false, as reported in 2018. They still record the places you go, just in a different way -- your "Web and App Activity," which recorded your precise location whenever you used other Google apps and services.

But surely you can opt out of location-based or personalized ads altogether and avoid all this? Yes, Google has that option, right when you sign up: a choice between "Show me personalized ads" and "Show me ads that aren't personalized."

Oops, actually that didn't work either. Google still used your location to target ads to you.

Sadly that's 0 for 3 on telling the truth here for Google. Normally this would just make people more angry at the company for its usual privacy shenanigans, but the Golden State happens to have some laws prohibiting this sort of thing.

With this settlement, Google admits to no wrongdoing (😉) but will nevertheless pay $93 million to the state and agrees to a number of new restrictions pertaining to its location services and deceptive communications.

Here's how the AG's office summarized what Google must now do, for Californians at least:

  • Show additional information to users when enabling location-related account settings.

  • Provide more transparency about location tracking.

  • Provide users with detailed information about the location data that Google collects and how it is used through a “Location Technologies” web page.

  • Disclose to users that their location information may be used for ads personalization.

  • Disclose to users before using Location History data to build ad targeting profiles for users.

  • Obtain review by Google’s internal Privacy Working Group and document approval for all material changes to location-setting and ads personalization disclosures that will have a material impact on privacy.

The exact details of what Google has to show (and it must be "CLEAR AND CONSPICUOUS") can be found starting on page 7 of the proposed order, which you can download here.