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US turns up the heat on Google over alleged dodgy data dealings

Law court crime punishment

Washington DC Attorney General Karl Racine sued Google for ‘deceiving and manipulating consumers to gain access to their location data’ and claimed this means it is nearly impossible for users to stop their location from being tracked.

It has been launched in coordination with similar action from three other US attorneys general from Texas, Indiana and Washington state in what is described as ‘a bipartisan, coordinated effort to hold Google accountable for misleading and violating the privacy of its users.’

The claims are that since at least 2014, Google has ‘systematically deceived’ its users with regards to how it tracks their locations. It asserts that the processes it set up that are supposed to let Android, Google maps and Google search users control what data is being collected are misleading – and that there is in reality no way for consumers to prevent Google from collecting, storing, and profiting from their location data.

“Google falsely led consumers to believe that changing their account and device settings would allow customers to protect their privacy and control what personal data the company could access,” said Racine. “The truth is that contrary to Google’s representations it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data. Google’s bold misrepresentations are a clear violation of consumers’ privacy.

“I’m proud to lead this bipartisan group of attorneys general that will hold Google accountable for its deception. Through this lawsuit, we will hold Google accountable, and in the process, educate consumers on how their personal data—particularly sensitive data about their physical location—is collected, stored, and monetized. This result of our collective action is that consumers, not Google, will determine how their data is or is not used.”

The attorney general’s office says it started looking into all this because of an article published in 2018 by the Associated Press with the title ‘Google tracks your movements, like it or not.’

The technical claim is that even if a user turns off ‘location services’ on their device Google ‘can still collect and store their location through Google apps on the user’s device, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scans from the user’s device, the user’s IP address, or through other methods.’

The AG also has a dig at Google’s use of ‘dark patterns’ – which basically means a site or app tricking or coercing you into doing something you didn’t want to.

The announcements reads: “Google has made extensive use of dark patterns—such as repeated nudging, misleading pressure tactics, and evasive and deceptive descriptions of features and settings—to stop users from protecting their privacy and cause them to provide more and more data inadvertently or out of frustration. Some examples include repeatedly prompting users to enable location in certain apps and claiming products would not function properly if location was not enabled, when in fact location was not needed to use the app.”

There’s been a spate of stories recently involving governments, lawyers and state agencies seemingly pushing back on the massive influence big tech firms like Google exert on society, politics, and our notions of privacy, and this can certainly been seen as part of that trend.

Late last week the EU parliament agreed a set of draft measures designed to regulate how tech and social platforms engage in data gathering and targeted advertising. Using somewhat less inflammatory language, the suggestion is that refusing consent to share data should be no more difficult or time-consuming than giving consent, and that if no consent is given other ways of interreacting with sites or apps should be provided, including “options based on tracking-free advertising”.

The week before a class action lawsuit was launched in the UK that claimed Facebook abused its dominant position and exploited the data of 44 million UK Facebook users. ‘International competition law expert’ Dr Liza Lovdahl Gormsen has added the damages up and reckons they’re worth £2.3 billion.

The statement released alongside the action against Google today is quite striking in its tone – containing phrases like “Google’s business model relies on constant surveillance of its users” and “Google manipulates its users through deceptive design choices that alter user decision-making in ways that harm the user and benefit Google.”

Of course this will all have to go through the courts, but we can perhaps take note of what seems to represent an escalation in rhetoric by a state actor/lawyer type against one of the tech giants on the increasingly politicised issue of data privacy.

 


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