Oregon-led Google privacy settlement requires more transparency about data collection

The Oregon Capitol is pictured on a mobile phone in this file photo taken October 2020.

The Oregon Capitol is pictured on a mobile phone in this file photo taken October 2020.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced what she called the largest AG-led internet privacy settlement in U.S. history. It stems from a case led by the attorneys general of Oregon and Nebraska. They got Google to agree to pay nearly $400 million. The issue at the heart of the settlement is location data.

The states alleged that Google misled its users. Those users turned location tracking off, but the company was still collecting that data. Kristen Hilton, senior assistant Oregon attorney general, led the litigation team. She told “Think Out Loud” the investigation began with an 2018 Associated Press article about Google telling people they could turn off their tracking app and it would stop collecting that information.

“And that wasn’t a true statement. It turned out that there was another setting that was essentially collecting the same type of location data from people. And this other setting which was called ‘web and app activity’ was automatically turned on for everyone that had a Google account, which was particularly impactful for Android users because you need to have a Google account in order to use the Android phone.”

But she said everyone with Gmail installed on any mobile device had their detailed location data collected for several years.

Hilton said one of the biggest challenges in pursuing privacy protection for Google users was that laws governing companies’ behavior are grievously outdated.

“They were around before Google was even a company, before we were all walking around with mobile devices in our pockets. And so the current laws can be really limiting with what we’re able to say are violations,” she said. “So we really need stronger consumer privacy laws in this country.”

Google did not admit any wrong doing in the settlement, but in addition to the $391.5 million that it will be required to pay, the settlement also requires changes from the company.

“One of the major changes is that they are making their control settings more user friendly,” said Hilton. “So if a user wants to turn off some of these settings that collect location data, they’re able to turn those settings off and also delete the data that had been collected up to that point at the same time.”

In addition, Google is required to have a location technologies page that makes it clear exactly what information is being collected and what it does with that data.

“And one of the biggest changes is that anyone who gets an Android phone and has to sign up for a new Google account going forward is going to see detailed information about that, which was a previously hidden setting, that was also collecting location information,” said Hilton.

Oregon AG Ellen Rosenblum and Nebraska’s AG Doug Peterson co-led the investigation, which 38 other states signed onto. Oregon’s share of the settlement is $14 million.

Hilton says the Attorney General’s office will be submitting privacy legislation to further protect Oregonians in the 2023 legislative session, which starts in mid-January.

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