Google’s ‘constant surveillance’ of users is ‘nearly impossible for users to stop’, lawsuit alleges

·3 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The attorney’s general of three American states, as well as the District of Columbia, are suing Google for allegedly deceiving customers about the privacy of their data.

The lawsuit alleges that Google made it nearly impossible for users to stop their location from being tracked.

Google “systematically” deceived consumers about how their locations are tracked and used, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine alleged.

He also said the internet search giant has misled users into believing they can control the information the company collects about them.

“In reality, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing and profiting from their location,” the lawsuit says. Google has "an unprecedented ability to monitor consumers’ daily lives.”

Google makes it impossible for users to opt out of having their sensitive and valuable location data tracked, the suit alleges.

The attorneys general of TexasIndiana and Washington state are filing similar lawsuits in their state courts, according to Racine’s office.

“Google’s business model relies on constant surveillance of its users,” his office said in a news release. The suit asserts that Google has “a powerful financial incentive to obscure the details” of its location-data collection and to make it difficult for consumers to opt out. It says location data is a key part of its digital advertising business that generated $150 billion in revenue for Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. in 2020.

The company, based in Mountain View, California, is disputing the claims.

“The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings," Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said in a statement. "We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data.”

The company will defend itself and "set the record straight,” Castaneda said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a raft of legal salvos against the tech giant, whose search engine accounts for an estimated 90 per cent of web searches worldwide.

In December 2020, ten states led by Texas filed a federal suit against Google accusing it of “anticompetitive conduct” in the online advertising industry, including a deal to manipulate sales with rival Facebook, and two months before the US Justice Department joined 11 states in filing a landmark antitrust suit against Google for allegedly abusing its dominance in online search and advertising.

The difficulty users face changing the privacy settings has been criticised by even Google’s engineers in the past – albeit not publicly.

In August 2020, unsealed documents from a lawsuit alleging Google uses “deceptive and unfair practices used to obtain users’ location data” found that an unnamed employee was being tracked by Google even when they believed they were not.

“Speaking as a user, WTF? More specifically I **thought** I had location tracking turned off on my phone,” the software engineer said in the released chat logs.

“So our messaging around this is enough to confuse a privacy focused [Google software engineer]. That’s not good.”

That lawsuit stemmed from an older accusation that Google made it more difficult for users to restrict the location information provided to it made in 2018. Google has denied all allegations.

Additional reporting by AP