Google is facing fresh legal action over claims it recorded users’ locations, even after they had switched off its optional ‘Location History’ setting on their device.
The company is under investigation by Arizona’s attorney general, who is looking into whether the search firm deceived its users.
Google could face huge fines – up to $10,000 (£7,770) per violation – if the claims are confirmed by a team of lawyers assembled by the state of Arizona.
This could lead to unprecedented penalties in the United States, potentially prompting similar moves elsewhere in the world.
The investigation was launched by Republican Mark Brnovich, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke to the Washington Post under the condition of anonymity.
A public filing dated August 21 – one week after an explosive report revealed the extent of the location tracking undertaken by Google – has recently come to light.
The redacted document reveals Brnovich’s office has hired a team of lawyers to look into an unnamed technology company.
The team are investigating its ‘storage of consumer location data, tracking of consumer location, and other consumer tracking through . . . smartphone operating systems, even when consumers turn off “location services” and take other steps to stop such tracking.’
A spokesman for the Arizona attorney general’s office has since released a statement on the matter.
‘General Brnovich has prioritized consumer data privacy and cybersecurity since taking office. This investigation shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows him well.’
Google clarified its position on tracking in a statement to the Washington Post.
Google spokesman Aaron Stein said location data ‘helps us provide useful services when people interact with our products, like locally relevant search results and traffic predictions.’
MailOnline has contacted Google for further comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Google has previously claimed it did not mislead its customers over its location tracking policies (pictured)
This is not the first time that Google has had to fend off legal action over the decision to continue to track users who switched off the ‘location history’ setting.
Google is already embroiled in a California court case.
According to a complaint filed in August, Google falsely assured people they would not be tracked if they turn the ‘Location History’ feature on their phones to ‘off,’ and instead violates their privacy by monitoring and storing their movements.
It alleged that Google is in violation of California’s Invasion of Privacy Act.
‘Google represented that a user can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored,’ the complaint filed in San Francisco federal court stated. ‘This simply was not true.’
The plaintiff, Napoleon Patacsil of San Diego, is seeking class-action status on behalf of every US-based user of Android and iOS smartphones who turned the tracking feature off.
He is seeking unspecified damages for Google’s alleged intentional violations of California privacy laws, and intrusion into people’s private affairs.
HOW DOES GOOGLE TRACK ITS USERS’ LOCATIONS OUTSIDE OF ‘LOCATION HISTORY’?
A new investigation led by the Associated Press found that some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking – even when you’ve paused Location History.
The investigation found, for example:
- Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you open its Maps app
- Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint where you are each time the forecast is refreshed
- Simple searchers, such as ‘chocolate chip cookies,’ or ‘kids science kits,’ pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude – accurate to the square foot – and save it to your Google account
This information is all logged as part of the ‘Web and App Activity feature, which does not specifically reference location information in its description.
This is enabled by default, and stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account.
Leaving ‘Web & App Activity’ on and turning ‘Location History’ off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the ‘timeline,’ its visualization of your daily travels.
It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.
The move follows an explosive report by the Associated Press, which revealed that several Google apps and websites store user location even if users turned off Location History.
For the investigative report, Princeton postdoctoral researcher Gunes Acar carried an Android smartphone with the ‘Location History’ setting turned off.
Despite the setting purportedly preventing data collection, researchers discovered Google had kept records of Dr Acar’s train commute on two trips to New York and visits to the High Line park, Chelsea Market, Hell’s Kitchen, Central Park and Harlem.
Researchers then plotted the locations on a map. They found that Google keeps track of your current location each time you open Google Maps.
The daily weather updates on Android phones also provided another way to track movement.
Google altered its website so that it says turning Location History off ‘does not affect other location services’ in phones and that some location data may be saved through other services, such as Search and Maps.
Previously, the page stated: ‘With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.’
Google acknowledge the change in a statement to reporters.
‘We have been updating the explanatory language about Location History to make it more consistent and clear across our platforms and help centers,’ Google said in a statement to the Associated Press at the time.
Privacy experts have assailed Google’s policy of saving user location data that it doesn’t technically classify as ‘location history.’
Additionally, a privacy group stated in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission that Google violated the terms of a 2011 settlement by collecting users’ data even when their Location History was turned off.
In that settlement, Google said it wouldn’t misrepresent its practices related to ‘(1) the purposes for which it collects and uses covered information, and (2) the extent to which consumers may exercise control over the collection, use, or disclosure of covered information.’
As part of the settlement, Google also agreed to a 20-year monitoring regimen.
HOW CAN YOU FIND AND DELETE WHERE GOOGLE KNOWS YOU’VE BEEN?
Even if you have ‘Location History’ off, Google often stores your precise location.
Here’s how to delete those markers and some best-effort practices that keep your location as private as possible.
But there’s no panacea, because simply connecting to the internet on any device flags an IP address that can be geographically mapped.
Smartphones also connect to cell towers, so your carrier knows your general location at all times.
To disable tracking on any device
Fire up your browser and go to myactivity.google.com. You’ll need to be logged into Google.
On the upper left drop-down menu, go to ‘Activity Controls.’ Turn off both ‘Web & App Activity’ and ‘Location History.’
That should prevent precise location markers from being stored to your Google account.
Google will warn you that some of its services won’t work as well with these settings off.
In particular, neither the Google Assistant, a digital concierge, nor the Google Home smart speaker will be particularly useful.
If you use Google Maps, adjust your location setting to ‘While Using’ the app. This will prevent the app from accessing your location when it’s not active.
Go to Settings Privacy Location Services and from there select Google Maps to make the adjustment.
In the Safari web browser, consider using a search engine other than Google.
Under Settings Safari Search Engine, you can find other options like Bing or DuckDuckGo.
You can turn location off while browsing by going to Settings Privacy Location Services Safari Websites, and turn this to ‘Never.’
This still won’t prevent advertisers from knowing your rough location based on IP address on any website.
You can also turn Location Services off to the device almost completely from Settings Privacy Location Services.
Both Google Maps and Apple Maps will still work, but they won’t know where you are on the map and won’t be able to give you directions.
Emergency responders will still be able to find you if the need arises.
Under the main settings icon click on ‘Security & location.’ Scroll down to the ‘Privacy’ heading. Tap ‘Location.’ You can toggle it off for the entire device.
Use ‘App-level permissions’ to turn off access to various apps.
Unlike the iPhone, there is no setting for ‘While Using.’
You cannot turn off Google Play services, which supplies your location to other apps if you leave that service on.
Sign in as a ‘guest’ on your Android device by swiping down from top and tapping the downward-facing cursor, then again on the torso icon.
Be aware of which services you sign in on, like Chrome. You can also change search engines even in Chrome.
To delete past location tracking on any device
On the page myactivity.google.com, look for any entry that has a location pin icon beside the word ‘details.’
Clicking on that pops up a window that includes a link that sometimes says ‘From your current location.’
Clicking on it will open Google Maps, which will display where you were at the time.
You can delete it from this popup by clicking on the navigation icon with the three stacked dots and then ‘Delete.’
Some items will be grouped in unexpected places, such as topic names, google.com, Search, or Maps.
You have to delete them item by item. You can wholesale delete all items in date ranges or by service, but will end up taking out more than just location markers.