Newly unredacted documents in a lawsuit against Google reveal that the company’s own executives and engineers knew just how difficult the company had made it for smartphone users to keep their location data private.
Google continued collecting 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, according to the documents.
Jack Menzel, a former vice president overseeing Google Maps, admitted during a deposition 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, didn’t know how the company’s complex web of privacy settings interacted with each other, according to the documents.
Google and LG did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The documents are part of a lawsuit brought against Google by the Arizona attorney general’s office last year, which accused the company of illegally collecting location data from smartphone users even after they opted out.
A judge ordered new sections of the documents to be unredacted last week in response to a request by trade groups Digital Content Next and News Media Alliance, which argued that 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 unsealed versions of the documents paint an even more detailed picture of how Google obscured its data collection techniques, confusing not just its users but also its own employees.
Google uses a variety of avenues to collect user location data, according to the documents, including WiFi and even third-party apps not affiliated with Google, forcing users to share their data in order to use those apps or, in some cases, even connect their phones to WiFi.
“So there is no way to give a third party app your location and not Google?” one employee said, according to the documents, adding: “This doesn’t sound like something we would want on the front page of the [New York Times].”
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,” according to the documents. To solve that problem, Google then sought to bury those settings deeper within the settings menu.
Google also tried to convince smartphone makers to hide location settings “through active misrepresentations and/or concealment, suppression, or omission of facts” — that is, data Google had showing that users were using those settings — “in order to assuage [manufacturers’] privacy concerns.”
Google employees appeared to recognize that users were frustrated by the company’s aggressive data collection practices, potentially hurting its business.
“Fail #2: *I* should be able to get *my* location on *my* phone without sharing that information with Google,” one employee said.
“This may be how Apple is eating our lunch,” they added, saying Apple was “much more likely” to let users take advantage of location-based apps and services on their phones without sharing the data with Apple.