Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai gestures during a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 22, 2020.

FABRICE COFFRINI | AFP | Getty Images

Four attorneys general are suing Google for allegedly misleading users about when the company was able to track their location.

The bipartisan group of attorneys general from the District of Columbia, Indiana, Texas and Washington allege in separate lawsuits filed Monday that Google deceived users from at least 2014 to 2019 by leading them to believe that turning off “location history” settings would make the service stop tracking their whereabouts. But, the AGs allege, a user’s location could still be tracked by Google unless they also turned off settings in the “Web & App Activity” section.

Google describes Web & App Activity as a way to personalize experiences for users by saving searches and activity in a user’s account.

The AGs allege that Google misled users to believe that once they turned their location history off, their whereabouts would no longer be tracked.

“Yet, even when consumers explicitly opted out of location tracking by turning ‘location history’ off, Google nevertheless recorded consumers’ locations via other means,” the Washington lawsuit alleges. “Although Web & App Activity setting is automatically enabled for all Google accounts, the company’s disclosures during ‘Google Account’ creation did not mention or draw consumers’ attention to the setting until 2018,” the suit charges.

A 2018 report from the Associated Press revealed the basis of the allegations in the lawsuits.

The AGs allege that Google profited from the deception by fueling its advertising business with such data. The lawsuits specifically request the court to require Google to offload any algorithms created with the allegedly ill-gotten gains, alongside monetary profits.

“The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. “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.”

Castañeda added that the Alphabet-owned search giant has updated the way it stores and communicates to users about location settings, including by letting users automatically delete location data on a regular basis beginning in June 2019. In June 2020, it made auto-delete the default for new accounts. The company also has made changes to limit the way it collects location data when users search on Google, to collect the general area a user is searching from rather than a precise location.

Google also pointed to comments a judge in a similar case brought by Arizona’s attorney general made.

“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 a recent filing.

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