Google court documents show users who opt out of tracking are still being monitored

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Newly published documents in the Arizona Attorney General’s lawsuit against tech giant Google reveals more details about the company’s response to reports about its privacy policies and how the IP addresses of users of Google are used to obtain exact location information.

The case of Attorney General Mark Brnovich, filed in 2020, is part of a larger investigation that has been going on since at least 2018, after a Associated Press Article revealed that some Google apps store location data without asking, and deleting the data is a time-consuming process. AP found that Google Maps, for example, creates a snapshot of where users are every time they open the app, even when location history is turned off.

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The current case has been strewn with pitfalls redaction and sealing of documents.

Last year, Google and the attorney general agreed on a special discovery master, or SDM, an outside person who would oversee the discovery process and resolve any disputes. During the SDM discovery process, the state had 30 hours of witness depositions and more than 200,000 pages of documents produced, according to the court ruling.

The original lawsuit filed by the Attorney General included 270 exhibits, only one of which a small part has been made public. Some of these documents highlight certain issues such as Google’s own engineers being confused by their privacy settings and how Google’s apps location information shared with other apps.

The newly released documents are testimony from state and Google experts who were under protective orders and “in the eyes of an attorney only.” The documents contain excerpts of testimonials from Google employees as well as internal emails discussing the location history and app and web activity settings at the heart of the controversy in the AP article.

The documents also detail a Google tool called “IPGeo” which, according to a 2009 presentation obtained by the Attorney General, is designed to “predict users’ locations from their IP addresses by improving ways to leverage available data, and provide this knowledge to all Google products.”

The Attorney General’s office also found a privacy notice attached to the presentation of the tool.

“You have no idea how incredibly confidential this one is,” the notice reads. “My my, it’s confidential. I am not joking. Imagine an article titled “Google knows where you live because it spies on you” in the NYT. You have been warned.”

One of the state experts, Jennifer King, chief privacy and data policy officer at Stanford University, said the tool is used specifically by Google and tracks its users regardless of their settings. It also turns those who choose to accept whereabouts reports into “reporters” of those who chose not to participate.

“Users who report their location are essentially co-opted by Google to determine the location of nearby users who haven’t reported their location,” King said. “Furthermore, despite the different settings, there is no ‘opt-out’ and there is nothing users can do to prevent Google from doing so.”

Google’s own employees have also begun to question how the company characterizes location history settings when using this tool, according to internal emails.

Former software engineer Blake Lemoine made headlines earlier this year when he said he believed Google’s LaMDA AI can be sentient. It was later fired by the company but he also expressed concerns about how the company presented location information to “father of the internetand Google’s chief evangelist, Vint Cerf.

“[L]Location information derived from IP addresses is an inescapable part of the internet, so we don’t need users’ permission to use it,” Lemoine said in his email to Cerf. “I believe the level of accuracy of our IP Geo system is far beyond anything achievable based solely on the location information inherent in IP addresses. I believe we are misleading users by telling them that they can disable location and then spend millions of dollars inferring their location in other ways… I feel like we’re lying to our users by giving them a permission setting that we find a way around.”

Cerf responded by saying that Lemoine “argues that we seem to be tracking even when users have turned off what they think and what we imply are tracking mechanisms” and that he was shocked that the company had “created a date, time, location and route calendar for 18 months” of his movements which he only found out when someone told him to watch the Google Maps Timeline.

After the AP article was published in 2018, Google employees also expressed fear over the backlash, with one saying some at the company were starting to “freak out that this could be our Cambridge moment.” Analytica,” referring to how The private data of 87 million people was collected on Facebook by the British firm.

In documents obtained by the Attorney General’s office and discussed by an expert witness Colin Grayassociate professor at Purdue University, a Google employee expressed confusion and fear about the company’s device location settings.

“So there’s no way to give away your location to a third-party app and not Google? That doesn’t sound like something we’d want on the front page of the NYT,” said Jen Chai, product manager for Android. .

Gray is an expert in what is called “dark patterns, user interfaces that trick, coerce or manipulate a person into agreeing to its terms. The phrase has attracted increased attention lately, as the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating amazon and its use of ambiguous language during registration and cancellation. Internal documents obtained by Business Insider showed that employees knew they were deliberately confusing consumers.

“First, Google uses dark models using confusing terminology that forces the user to understand that location data is not only contained in location historysaid Gray in his report. “Second, using the default opt-in for (Web and App Activity) automatically tracks users’ location data, possibly without their knowledge.”

Gray also added that even if “all settings on an Android device were turned off, Google would still collect a user’s location data through IPGeo” and another tool whose name was removed from the documents. Both of these tools work independently of settings.

Google hit back at the state and its experts by citing that its privacy options have always been open and transparent, adding that Gray’s methodology lacked scientific rigor.

“I do not observe any confusing, indistinct, misleading, manipulative or misleading element in the way these screens have been arranged,” said Donna Hoffman, professor of marketing at the George Washington School of Business. “Rather, the screens provide users with control over the choices they may wish to make as they navigate through numerous settings options.”

Hoffman argued that “the location history toggle is an opt-in account-level feature service, not a primary location setting for the device” and that information for users looking for a deeper understanding of how their data might be used can find it in Google Privacy Policyadding that including information on specific tools would harm confidential information.

“This level of disclosure may threaten the security of the intellectual property of Google (and possibly other companies), and certainly exceeds the level of detail required by smartphone users to be aware of and make informed decisions about settings. related to location on their smartphones,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman also claimed that when consumers encounter an app that offers a high level of value, they are “increasingly willing to reduce privacy.” Hoffman also gave more details about a meeting, called “Oh shit-which took place after the AP story was published.

“As for the so-called ‘Oh sh–’ meeting that Dr. Gray apparently attaches so much importance to, it is my understanding that this was a regular weekly meeting on press events and other elements related to communications that continue to this day,” Hoffman said. “These meetings are consistent with Google’s culture of customer-centric innovation and constructive use of feedback.”

“Your name came up today at our Monday morning ‘Oh Sh–’ meeting in relation to this story,” said an email sent to Google’s entire communications team. “Communications and Policy is looking for an update on where we are in terms of fixing ‘location history’ fixes and having 1 place to disable instead of 3.”

The company also had a series of reports who tracked how the AP story was seen and shared on social media and noted that “100%” of the coverage was negative.

“Privacy controls have long been built into our services, and our teams are constantly working to discuss and improve them,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement emailed to Google. Arizona Mirror on the most recent version of the document. “In the case of location information, we have heard feedback and have worked hard to improve our privacy controls. As our experts have shown, the Attorney General continues to misrepresent our services and products.

On Thursday, Judge Timothy Thomason ruled in favor of the state to allow Gray to be an expert witness after Google tried to block his testimony and any references to “dark models”.

In the decision, the court found that “some of Google’s arguments were found to be fallacious” after the state contacted an academic cited by Google to question the use of dark grounds who responded that Google “misinterprets his article” and endorsed the validity of dark motives.

A trial in that case is scheduled to begin on October 24.

*** This story has been updated to include the trial date.

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