Newly unredacted documents show Google shared location with other apps and more

By: - May 24, 2021 4:55 pm

Photo by meneame comunicacions | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

A new version of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s lawsuit against tech behemoth Google alleges the company tracked users’ location across third party apps and still gathered that information when devices connected to WiFi, even if location services were off. 

And company employees voiced concerns that the media, including The New York Times, would find out.

“So there is no way to give a third party app your location and not Google?” A Google employee is quoted saying in the complaint in a newly unredacted section. “This doesn’t sound like something we would want on the front page of the NYT.” 

The complaint is part of an ongoing consumer fraud lawsuit Brnovich first filed in May 2020 alleging that Google’s data collection schemes violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act, though large portions of the lawsuit were redacted by the court at Google’s request. What has followed has been a legal battle over what has been able to be released. 

The AG began investigating Google after an Associated Press article in 2018, and Brnovich has been part of a 48-state antitrust investigation into Google since 2019. Brnovich has been widely critical of Google in the past.  

Some of the redacted portions of the lawsuit and its exhibits have since been made public, including internal Google emails. Many remain fully redacted and had been previously filed under seal. 

Previously unsealed documents showed that Google’s own software engineers did not understand how its privacy functions worked in regards to location history settings. 

“I agree with the article,” an unnamed Google employee wrote in an internal email, referring to the AP article in 2018. “Location off should mean location off; not except for this case or that case.” 

The newly released documents shed further light on Google employees’ feelings about location settings and other privacy issues. 

“Real people just think in terms of ‘location is on’, ‘location is off’ because that is exactly what you have on the front screen of your phone,” one unnamed Google employee says in one of the newly released documents in response to a colleague sharing a story about how users were confused by the setting

The newly released documents also revealed that location history would still get some information from your phone, even with it turned off. 

When any Android user with GPS activated on their phone checked into the Google Play Store, where apps are downloaded and updated, the Play Store grabbed location information, an unnamed Google employee said in an internal email. The only way to stop the Play Store from doing so is to install a whole new operating system on the phone, the employee said. 

“[G]iven what you seem to want to do (not have any contact with any Google service whatsoever), your only option is flashing LineageOS for microG on your phone and getting away entirely from the Google ecosystem,” the Google employee suggested in the email if a user wanted to remove their location information from Google.

Google also seemed aware that location history settings were confusing and not easy to access for their users. 

“Today, a collection of device usage and diagnostic data is smeared across 5 settings resulting in conditions that are difficult for Googlers, let alone users, to understand,” a highly redacted document says

The company also seemed aware of the possible fallout that the AP article would bring, as an internal group chat used to share news was quickly shut down when they began discussing the article

“Although I know how it works and what the difference between ‘Location’ and ‘Location History’ is, I did not know Web and App activity had anything to do with location,” one Googler said in reply to the AP Article. “Also seems we are not very good at explaining this to users.” 

“Please don’t comment!” the next response in the thread read. 

The new complaint also reveals that Brnovich is accusing Google of continuing to collect “location through WiFi connectivity.” 

“Google makes it so a user cannot opt out of this form of location tracking unless the user actually completely disables the WiFi functionality on his or her device,” the complaint alleges, “meaning the device cannot connect to the internet through WiFi.” 

Google is still able to get location information on users using their IP addresses, which can often give personally identifying information

Googlers recognized that this behavior could be seen in a bad light to their users, according to the new complaint. 

“[W]e probably don’t want it to be seen as hiding information from the user. As in we estimate where you are at the zip code level, but we will show you very local ads so that you don’t freak out,” the unnamed employee said

The new filing also reveals that Google allegedly pressured LG into moving the placement of the location toggle on its phones to the second page of settings, and it appears Google may have attempted to pressure others to do the same, according to the new complaint. 

“Google tried to convince these carriers and manufacturers to conceal the location settings — or make them less prominent — through active misrepresentations and/or concealments, suppression, or omission of facts available to Google concerning user experience in order to assuage their privacy concerns,” Brnovich’s lawsuit alleges. “In reality, Google was simply trying to boost the location attach rate, which is critical for Google’s own advertising revenue.” 

Google rejected Brnovich’s new claims, and said he isn’t truthfully representing the company’s products and services.

“The Attorney General has gone out of his way to mischaracterize our services. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location date,” a Google spokesperson told the Arizona Mirror in a written statement. “We look forward to setting the record straight.”

Google said it has requested that the court redact portions of the documents that were released in order to protect proprietary and confidential information from competitors like Oracle

The company contends that it has cooperated with the attorney general and provided “tens of thousands” of documents related to Brnovich’s investigation as well and has made many of the settings easier to navigate. 

Google did not respond to a request for comment or to questions about how location settings and WiFi connectivity as well as the Play Store interact.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.