The Australian federal court has ruled that Google misled Android users about the collection of location data. This statement refers to the “Location History” controversy from a few years ago. The Associated Press reported at the time that turning off the Location History setting doesn’t disable all location tracking features for every Google product.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) filed a lawsuit against Google. The regulatory agency’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 affecting was when asked whether Google collected, stored, or used any personally identifiable information about their location.” The ACCC continues, “In fact, another Google account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also allowed Google to collect, store, and use personally identifiable location data when enabled, and that setting was the default. switched on.”
Now that the court has determined that there has been misconduct, it is not yet clear what the Australian government intends to do about the situation. The press release says, “The ACCC is seeking statements, fines, publication orders and compliance orders. These will be determined at a later date.” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims added: “In addition to fines, we are asking Google to publish a notice to Australian consumers to better explain Google’s location data settings in the future. This will help consumers make informed choices about whether or not settings that collect… location data should be enabled.”
Location history only affected data collected through Google Maps. This made sense in 2012, when Location History started out as a setting in the Google Maps app. Google’s push for unified privacy settings, as seen on its “My Account” page in 2015, meant putting all these settings on one page and “Location History” losing the Google Maps context it used to have. In 2018, the AP asked, “Why doesn’t this setting in my account called ‘Location History’ turn off location tracking for my entire account?” and a great controversy arose.
Google changed its location history settings following the AP’s article, and today the company says the feature is “a Google account-level setting that stores where you go with each mobile device.” Keep in mind that this only affects mobile devices and a lot of location data is still under the “Web & App Activity” setting, which Google vaguely says is certain location data “on Google sites, apps, and services.” ‘ includes. As explained in this support article, the other two Google location settings you may want to track down are location sharing via Google Maps, which allows you to share your location with your friends, and Android’s Google Location Accuracy (the Fused Location Provider from Google Play Service), which attempts to calculate a low-power location from Wi-Fi and cellular data without having to fire up the expensive GPS receiver. Google doesn’t do anything in a unified, company-wide way, 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.
Update: This article was originally created by the ACCC as the deciding entity of the case, but it was the prosecuting entity in a federal court case. So the Federal Court made the ruling, not the ACCC.