Google loses “Location History” court battle in Australia

Google loses “Location History” court battle in Australia

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has ruled that Google misled Android users over its collection of location data. This ruling is in reference to the “Location History” controversy from a few years ago. The Associated Press reported at the time that turning off the Location History setting does not disable all location-tracking features across every Google product.

The ACCC’s press release states that from January 2017 to December 2018 (the AP article was published in August 2018), “Google misrepresented that the ‘Location History’ setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location.” The ruling continues, saying, “In fact, another Google Account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default.”

With the ACCC’s finding of wrongdoing, it’s not clear what the Australian government plans to do about the situation yet. The press release says, “The ACCC is seeking declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders. This will be determined at a later date.” ACCC Chair Rod Sims added, “In addition to penalties, we are seeking an order for Google to publish a notice to Australian consumers to better explain Google’s location data settings in the future. This will ensure that consumers can make informed choices about whether certain Google settings that… collect location data should be enabled.”

Location History used to only affect data collected through Google Maps. This made sense back in 2012, when Location History started out as a setting inside the Google Maps app. Google’s push for unified privacy settings, as seen in the “My Account” page in 2015, meant that all of these settings were pulled into a single page, and “Location History” lost the Google Maps context it used to have. In 2018, the AP asked, “Why does this setting in my account called ‘Location History’ not turn off location tracking for my entire account?” and a big controversy ensued.

Google changed the Location History settings after the AP’s article, and today the company says the feature is “a Google Account–level setting that saves where you go with every mobile device.” Note that this concerns mobile devices only, and a lot of location data still lives under the “Web and App Activity” setting, which Google vaguely says covers some location data “on Google sites, apps, and services.” As this support article explains, the other two Google location settings you might want to track down are Google Maps location sharing, which is for sharing your location with your friends, and Android’s Google Location Accuracy, (AKA Google Play Service’s Fused Location Provider), which tries to compute a low-power location from Wi-Fi and cellular data without having to fire up the expensive GPS receiver. Google does not do anything in a unified, company-wide fashion, and privacy settings are no exception.

Google’s privacy settings are so vague and confusing that even Google’s own employees don’t understand them, and the settings have already been the subject of at least one lawsuit.