Google Settles Massive Android User Tracking Lawsuit But Will It Change Its Practices?

google compares android user tracking lawsuit news
Back in 2018, the Associated Press (AP) published an article that drew attention to the fact that Google still collects some location data from users, even when location history is turned off in the Google account settings. Two years later, the Arizona Attorney General sued Google for fraudulent location tracking practices, citing this AP article. Now, after two more years, the two parties have come to an agreement. Google has agreed to pay the state of Arizona $85 million to settle the lawsuit.

$85 million is quite a chunk of change, but it won’t be distributed directly to the Arizona residents on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed. Instead, the money will first be split between the state and its legal counsel, with the latter receiving $7.75 million. Of the remaining $77.25 million, $5 million will go to the Attorney General, who will spend it on training and programs designed to educate the Attorney General’s staff on consumer protection issues. The rest of the money will be spent on education, broadband, and internet privacy programs as directed by state legislatures.

While these funds may help improve online privacy and consumer protection in Arizona, the settlement does not obligate Google to make any changes to its data collection practices or policies. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement from his office, “I am proud of this historic settlement, which proves that no entity, not even large technology companies, is above the law.” However, the settlement specifically states that both Parties “agree that nothing in this Agreement constitutes an admission of any wrongdoing or wrongdoing by the Defendant.”

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According to company spokesman José Castañeda, Google’s view on the matter is that the lawsuit “is based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago.” José continued, “We offer easy controls and automatic deletion options for location data and are constantly working to minimize the data we collect. We are pleased with the resolution of this matter and will continue to focus our attention on providing useful products for our users.”

Google Location History Web App Activity Settings What's new
Google location history and web and app activity settings (click to enlarge)

It is unclear which guidelines are referred to in the spokesman’s statement. However, the lawsuit highlights a specific section of Google’s support documentation that states, “You can turn off location history at any time. When location history is turned off, the places you visit are no longer saved.” Both the AP article and lawsuit present this language as misleading because other Google account settings and services allow Google to collect location information even when the location history setting is disabled.

To date, pausing location history does not prevent certain Google apps and services from collecting location data. However, Google has since updated its documentation to explain the limitations of the location history setting. Now, when users select the option to turn off location history, a dialog box will appear explaining what location history does and exposing the fact that location history is not a universal toggle for all Google location tracking.

“This setting does not affect other location services on your device, such as B. Google location services and Find My Device. Your location can still be saved to your Google account when you use other Google websites, apps and services. For example, location data may be saved as part of activity in Search and Maps if your Web & App Activity preference is turned on, and included in your photos depending on your camera app settings.”

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Google also updated the description of the Web & App Activity setting to inform users that this setting, when enabled, allows Google apps and websites to collect user location information. The setting description now reads: “Saves your activity on Google sites and apps, including related information like location, to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.”

additional news on Google Android location settings
Additional Google location settings on Android (click to enlarge)

Based on these descriptions, users who want to disable Google location tracking as much as possible should disable not only location history, but web and app activity as well. There are also a number of additional location settings in Android and Google apps that users can turn off. The Android location services settings page lists several location services, each with an on/off switch.

The Google Camera app also has a toggle to save location, but users will need to go into the Google Photos app to turn off location information for photos entirely. The Estimate Missing Places feature can use landmarks and other information to assign location information to photos, even if the Save Location feature is turned off in the Google Camera app. Unfortunately, many users who wish to disable Google location tracking may not be aware of these additional settings and instead think that the location history setting is a universal toggle for Google location tracking.