Google agreed to a $391.5 million settlement with 40 states to resolve an investigation into how the company tracked users’ locations, the attorney general’s office announced Monday.
The states’ investigation was prompted by a 2018 Associated Press story that revealed Google continued to track people’s location data even after they opted out of such tracking by disabling a feature the company called “location history.”
Attorneys general called the settlement a historic victory for consumers and the largest multi-state privacy settlement in US history.
It comes at a time of growing unease over privacy and surveillance by tech companies, which has sparked increasing anger from politicians and scrutiny from regulators. A Supreme Court ruling in June striking down constitutional protections for abortion raised potential privacy concerns for women seeking the procedure or related information online.
“This $391.5 million settlement is a historic victory for consumers in an era of increasing reliance on technology,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement. “Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal data that Google collects, and there are so many reasons why a consumer might opt out of tracking.”
Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it fixed the problems several years ago.
“In line with the improvements we’ve made in recent years, we’ve resolved this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed several years ago,” company spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.
Location tracking can help tech companies sell digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers near them. It’s another tool in a suite of data-gathering tools that generate more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, the bulk of the profits that flow into the coffers of its corporate parent, Alphabet, which has a market value of $1.2 trillion.
In its 2018 story, the AP reported that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones stored users’ location data even if they used a privacy setting that said it would prevent Google from doing so. Princeton computer science researchers confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.
Storing such data carries privacy risks and has been used by police to locate suspects.
The AP reported that the privacy issue with location tracking affected about 2 billion users of devices running Google’s Android operating software and hundreds of millions of iPhone users worldwide who rely on Google for maps or search.
Attorneys general investigating Google said a key part of the company’s digital advertising is location data, which they called the most sensitive and valuable personal data the company collects. Even a small amount of location data can reveal a person’s identity and routines, they said.
Google uses location information to target consumers with its customers’ ads, state officials said.
State attorneys general said Google has been misleading users about its location-tracking practices since at least 2014, in violation of state consumer protection laws.
As part of the settlement, Google also agreed to make the practice more transparent for users. This includes showing more information when they turn location account settings on and off and maintaining a website that informs users about the data Google collects.