Washington attorney general sues Google over location tracking

Attorney General Bob Ferguson argues tech giant deceives consumers by leading them to believe they have control over how their location data is stored and used.
Google offices in Irvine, CA
Google offices in Irvine, CA

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against tech giant Google, claiming it deceives consumers by leading them to believe they have control over how their location data is stored and used.

Ferguson also said consumers cannot effectively stop Google from collecting, storing and profiting from the data.

"Location data is deeply personal for consumers," Ferguson said in a press release Monday. "This information reveals the most significant details of our lives. Google denied consumers the ability to choose whether Google could track their sensitive location data to make a profit. Google kept tracking individuals' location data even after consumers told the corporation to stop. This is not only dishonest — it's unlawful."

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, says that while people know Google as a technology company that provides consumer products and web-based applications — such as Gmail and Google Search engine — the majority of its profits come from targeted advertising using analytics.

"To support this business, Google harvests consumers' personal data, including location data, which the Company uses to market to consumers and to evaluate the effectiveness of the advertisements it serves," the suit says.

The AG's press release says that Google made nearly $150 billion in 2020 selling advertising.

Ferguson alleges the company uses several deceptive and unfair practices to obtain consent from users to be tracked and that it is nearly impossible for users to prevent it from happening.

He said these practices include hard-to-find location settings on cell phones, misleading descriptions of location settings and repeated requests to enable location settings.

Ferguson believes this increases the likelihood that a user will enable the function inadvertently or do so out of frustration. He questions why Google does not provide similarly frequent prompts to opt out of location sharing.

When a user disables location history, they are told their location data is no longer stored, but Ferguson says that is untrue, as location data is still tracked under a different setting called "web & app activity" that has a default setting of "on."

The news release also referenced a 2018 story from the Associated Press detailing how confusing the process can be and how the information is stored even with location history paused.

Ferguson is asking the court to find Google in violation of the state's Consumer Protection Act and fine the company $7,500 for each violation — potentially reaching into the hundreds of thousands of potential violations.

Similar lawsuits were also filed by the attorneys general in Texas and Indiana.