AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined four other bipartisan attorneys general in suing Google for allegedly tracking users’ location data without their consent.
Texas filed its own lawsuit, filed Monday, alleging Google misled Texas users by continually tracking their location, even after users attempted to disable that feature.
“While many Texans may reasonably believe they have disabled the tracking of their location, the reality is that Google has been hard at work behind the scenes logging their movements in a data store Google calls ‘Footprints.’ But while footprints generally fade, Google ensures that the location information it stores about Texans is not so easily erased,” the lawsuit says.
Paxton said even if users opted out of sharing their location data, the company still used “ill-gotten data” to sent targeted advertisements to that user, “thereby earning enormous profits from wrongfully collected personal data.”
“Aggregated over time, this data paints an intimate mosaic that can effectively reveal a person’s identity and routines. Location data, for example, can be used to infer an individual’s home address, political or religious affiliation, sexual orientation, income, health status, and participation in support groups,” the lawsuit says.
Texas is one of four other attorneys general filing similar lawsuits from the District of Columbia, Indiana and Washington. Each alleges Google deceived users from at least 2014 to 2019. The suit relates to Android users in particular. Android is owned by Google.
“Google’s founding motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil.’ And yet it systematically lies to millions of consumers in order to stack billions of dollars into its coffers,” Paxton said in a statement. “…This is not only an unethical invasion of privacy—it’s against the law.”
Google released a statement Monday morning, stating that the claims being made are “inaccurate.”
“The Attorneys General are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight,” said José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson.
Castañeda pointed to a change in Google’s policy in June 2019, allowing consumers to automatically delete their location history. This became an automatic default setting for users beginning in June 2020, automatically deleted data older than 18 months. He also noted the launch of incognito mode on Google Maps, allowing users to get directions without their searches being stored.
The lawsuit claims users still may not be fully shielded from their location data being used if they do not additionally turn it off under “Web & App Activity” settings.
“When the Web & App Activity setting is enabled, Google collects and stores a large swath of data, including location data, whenever the user interacts with Google products and services. Notably, although the Web & App Activity setting is automatically enabled for all Google Accounts, Google’s disclosures during Google Account creation did not even mention it until 2018,” the lawsuit says.
Omar Gallaga, a Texas technology reporter freelancing for various news outlets, said this lawsuit represents a greater ongoing saga over Google’s location tracking services.
“Google says ‘we’ve given you tools to be able to turn this off, to be able to know when you’re being tracked.’ which is happening all the time,” he said. “But at issue is, are those tools enough? Is google misleading users?”
Gallaga said it’s not easy to navigate Android settings to change location services, questioning average users’ ability to realistically manage their privacy settings. He also acknowledged users may turn these location settings or not, but have no real way over verifying whether Google is no longer tracking them.
“Whether Google has overcomplicated that or made it to where no reasonable user would actually be able to use these options or not, I think that that’s a big issue too, is have they made it too difficult to find that,” he said.
Texas is asking for a jury trial for this case. If found guilty, the state is asking that the judge orders Google to pay restitution to anyone affected by these practices.
Arizona’s attorney general brought a similar case recently. The judge declined to rule on a claim in the case before it went to trial.
“A reasonable fact-finder could find that a reasonable, or even an unsophisticated, consumer, would understand that at least some location information is collected through means other than [‘location history’],” the judge wrote in the recent filing.