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Google to Pay $391 Million Over ‘Crafty’ Location Tracking

(Bloomberg) -- Google agreed to pay a total of $391.5 million to 40 US states to resolve a probe into controversial location-tracking practices that the Alphabet Inc. unit says it already discarded several years ago, in what state officials are calling the largest such privacy settlement in US history.

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Google will “significantly improve” its location-tracking disclosures and user controls starting next year as part of the deal, according to a statement issued Monday by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who led the negotiations with her Nebraska counterpart, Doug Peterson.

In an interview, Rosenblum called Google’s practices “crafty and deceptive” because the company had secretly recorded users’ movements and provided the data to advertisers for years, even after consumers believed they had turned off the location-tracking feature.

“They can’t deny what they did, which was incredibly misleading,” Rosenblum said, adding: “We’re never going to trust Google, but we can put controls on them that will make it a lot harder for them to track people” going forward.

Abortion and Privacy

Location history has become a particularly sensitive topic following the US Supreme Court decision overturning the right to an abortion, amid fears that prosecutors could use such data to track women’s movements to enforce state bans. Google has already said it would automatically delete records of user visits to sensitive locations, including abortion clinics, responding to the concerns.

The multi-state probe was triggered by a 2018 Associated Press article reporting that Google “records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to,” according to a separate statement by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The states cited issues with two Google account settings: Location History and Web & App Activity.

Google said the policies in question are long gone.

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement.

Privacy and Ad Sales

Google can track users’ locations with sensors on their devices that connect with GPS, cell towers and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals, New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a statement, adding that it can use those signals to track someone’s location “both outside and inside buildings,” he said.

“Digital platforms like Google cannot claim to provide privacy controls to users, then turn around and disregard those controls to collect and sell data to advertisers,” Platkin said.

Arizona in 2020 sued Google over the practice and earlier this year secured an $85 million settlement. That complaint accused Google of violating the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by gathering location data even after users opted out of a feature.

Nessel said transparency requirements of the 40-state accord “will ensure that Google not only makes users aware of how their location data is being used, but also how to change their account settings if they wish to disable location-related account settings, delete the data collected and set data retention limits.”

Separately, Meta Platforms Inc. will pay $90 million to settle a suit over the use of browser cookies and Facebook’s “Like” button to track user activity. The settlement got final approval from a federal court in California on Nov. 10.

Read More: Facebook’s $90 Million ‘Like’ Button Tracking Suit Pact Approved

--With assistance from Julia Love.

(Updates with interview with Oregon attorney general)

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