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In 2018, the Associated Press reported that Maps and some other Google services (both on iPhone and Android) store users' location data even if users have explicitly turned off location history.
"There are several ways that Google can use the location to improve the user experience, including: location history, web and app activity and location services at the device level," a Google spokesman told the AP at the time. "We provide clear descriptions of these tools and robust controls so users can turn them on or off and clear their histories at any time."
The Arizona Attorney General's office Mark Brnovich opened its own investigation following the AP report. In May 2020, the state sued Google for violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.
The initial lawsuit was heavily edited, the Arizona Mirror reports. However, following a petition from trade groups Digital Content Next and the News Media Alliance on August 3, the judge ordered that several documents related to the case should be unsealed. A new, less edited version of the suit is now available.
The new version of the suit (PDF) includes a number of employee emails and chat logs where Google employees agreed to the AP story, and those employees have highlighted their own frustrations with the settings. Among the highlights:
- "The current user interface seems to be designed to do things, but so difficult that people can't figure it out."
- "Some people (including even Googlers) don't know that there is one global switch and one switch per device."
- "In fact, we're not very good at explaining this to users. Add me to the list of Googlers who didn't understand how this works and were surprised when I read the article … we have a user interface delivered confusing users. "
- "I agree with the article. Location off should mean location off, except in this or that case."
"Speak as a user, WTF?" Another employee said in additional records obtained from the Arizona Mirror. "More specifically, I thought I turned off location tracking on my phone. So our messages about it are enough to confuse a privacy-conscious person (Google Software Engineer). That's not a good thing."
"When it comes to location information, we've received feedback and worked hard to improve our privacy controls," a Google spokesman told Mirror. "Even these cherry-picked published excerpts clearly show that the team's goal was to reduce confusion about the location history settings."
The "Oh Shit Meeting"
The suit also provides an intriguing glimpse into Google's reaction when negative news about the company is posted. "The day the AP story was published," the lawsuit states, "Google went into crisis mode and held a self-proclaimed" Oh Shit "meeting in response to the story."
The company's communications team released daily reports (PDF) after the AP's story was released. It kept track of where and when stories about the AP bombshell were posted, and kept track of what influential social media accounts were saying about the story.
The coverage on the first day was "100% negative," the report found. 93 percent of the stories identified were related to "lack of user consent / a creepy factor", 51 percent mentioned "misleading controls", and 32 percent of the stories provided some sort of guide to help customers unsubscribe or manage their data.
"We're seeing a growing narrative driven by third-party comments (policy influencers) and alluding to FTC / congressional actions," the report said, citing stories from CNET, Vanity Fair and Wired. "This will likely become a bigger focus as the week progresses."
Day two, day three, and day four reports covered the slow headline decline in the natural churn of the news cycle. By the end of day two, "this story was no longer on the list of top 10 trending stories in technology," and Google had fewer than 10 additional press inquiries, compared to the 40+ it received on day one.