Updated documents in a lawsuit against Google reveal that company leaders knew how difficult Google was making it for smartphone users to keep their location data private.
According to a lawsuit filed against Google, company leaders were aware of “how difficult the company had made it for smartphone users to keep their location data private.” The suit further alleges the company continued to collect “location data even when users turned off various location-sharing settings, made popular privacy settings harder to find, and even pressured LG and other phone makers into hiding settings precisely because users liked them.”
During a deposition, Jack Menzel, a former vice president overseeing Google Maps, admitted that the “only way Google wouldn’t be able to figure out a user’s home and work locations is if that person intentionally threw Google off the trail by setting their home and work addresses as some other random locations.” Jen Chai, a Google senior product manager in charge of location services, also admitted that she “didn’t know how the company’s complex web of privacy settings interacted with each other,” according to court documents.
The suit itself was filed last year by Arizona’s attorney general’s office. It claims Google has been “illegally collecting location data from smartphone users, even after users opt-out.” Recently, a judge ordered some of the court documents that had been redacted to be unredacted after trade groups Digital Content Next and News Media Alliance requested access to the documents. The groups said it was “in the public’s interest to know and that Google was using its legal resources to suppress scrutiny of its data collection practices.” The unredacted versions go into detail about how “how Google obscured its data collection techniques, confusing not just its users but also its own employees.”
There are many ways that Google collects user location data, including WiFi and third-party apps. In many of those third-party apps, users were forced to share their data to use the apps or to “connect their phones to WiFi.” On one occasion, an employee said:
“So there is no way to give a third-party app your location and not Google? This doesn’t sound like something we would want on the front page of the New York Times.”
The documents also revealed that “when Google tested versions of its Android operating system that made privacy settings easier to find, users took advantage of them, which Google viewed as a problem.” To get rid of that particular problem, Google attempted to bury those privacy settings “deeper within the settings menu.”
On top of that, Google tried to convince smartphone manufacturers to “hide location settings through active misrepresentations and/or concealment, suppression, or omission of facts…in order to assuage [manufacturers’] privacy concerns.” It didn’t take long before frustration began to grow, and Google employees noticed that users were becoming increasingly frustrated with the “company’s aggressive data collection practices, potentially hurting its business.” One employee said, “Fail #2: *I* should be able to get *my* location on *my* phone without sharing that information with Google…This may be how Apple is eating our lunch.”