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

The Oregon Capitol is seen on a cell phone in this October 2020 file photo.

The Oregon Capitol is seen on a cell phone in this October 2020 file photo.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

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

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

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

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

Hilton said one of the biggest challenges in seeking to protect the privacy of Google users has been that the laws governing the companies’ behavior are far out of date.

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“They were around before Google was a company, before we all walked around with mobile devices in our pockets. And so the laws today can be really restrictive with what we can say are violations,” he said. “So we need stronger consumer privacy laws in this country.”

Google has not admitted any wrongdoing in the deal, but in addition to the $391.5 million it will have to pay, the deal also requires changes from the company.

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

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Additionally, Google is required to have a location technologies page that clarifies exactly what information is being collected and what it does with that data.

“And one of the biggest changes is that anyone with an Android phone who needs to sign up for a new Google account will now see detailed information about it, which was previously a hidden setting, which also collected location information.”, Hilton said.

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

Hilton says the attorney general’s office will introduce privacy legislation to further protect Oregonians in the 2023 legislative session, which begins in mid-January.

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