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More than $400 million from Google for the use of location data

News of the agreement signed by Google and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to close an investigation by the Attorneys General of 40 US states into the company’s practices on the use of users’ location data, which were deemed deceptive and unfair, has caused a stir.

Origins of the investigation

The complaints, which ended in a settlement, stem from a 2018 investigation by the Associated Press alleging that Google LLC – the Delaware company based in Mountain View California – allegedly collected and used users’ location data even when they turned off their tracking history. The AP article highlighted how these allegations were confirmed by some scholars and university researchers.

Google transaction

Following AP’s public complaint in 2020, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, along with counterparts from 39 other US states, had instigated the investigation, the final settlement of which includes Google’s commitment, without admission of guilt or liability, to pay $391.5 million plus an additional $19.6 million, directly to the Pennsylvania attorney general. The amount has been commented on as the record value for a settlement by the attorneys general in privacy matters but, in fact, appears to be of relative importance when compared to Google’s $200 billion in annual advertising-generated revenue flowing into the coffers of parent company Alphabet whose market value is estimated at $1.2 trillion.

The document applies with respect to users individuals with Google accounts, who reside in the United States.

Its effective date is December 14, 2022, and the requirements contained in the so-called “Assurance” will last for five years.

Subject and specifications of the investigation

To use certain products and services offered by Google, consumers must provide Google with personal information. Google collects user data through Google account settings, which apply to data collected from any device that is logged into a Google account. Account settings include location history and user activity on certain Google sites and applications. The data collected from location history is derived from signals from location sensors on the user’s device, such as sensors for GPS, cellular tower, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals. Using these signals, Google is able to track accurate information about a user’s location, including the exterior and interior of buildings.

The account setting, if enabled, automatically saves a user’s or device’s physical location and place in the world at a given time on Google’s servers, obtained through the use of the aforementioned sensor data tracking technology, and can present them in a visual format displayed on a map.

Using this information, Google builds a sequential map of all the places the user has been, then, links the location history data with other data about the user to draw inferences about the user.

In addition, the user’s location information is also recorded when the user interacts with certain Google products such as Google Search or Google Maps.

Location history and location information derived from the use of Google apps or products are collected through independent settings.

Disabling one setting does not affect whether a user’s location information is collected and stored under the other setting. When a user prevents location tracking by one of these services, Google is able to track and monetize the user’s location through the other setting, if enabled.

Google uses data about a user’s location information to draw inferences about their habits and interests. These inferences are then used through Google’s paid services, which allow its customers to serve personalized advertisements on users’ devices based on their activities on Google services, such as Google Search or YouTube, and on websites and applications that partner with Google.