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Google’s collection of consumer location data was misleading, Australian court rules

Google
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen)

Google has been found to have misled Android mobile users in Australia around the collection of their location data, according to Australia’s Federal Court.

The court has ruled that when a new Google account was set up on an Android device between January 2017 and December 2018, users were misled into thinking that disabling ‘location history’ would completely stop the collection, storage and usage of their location data. 

This was despite the fact that a separate Google account setting, ‘web and app activity’, would still continue to collect, store and use personal location data. The ‘web and app activity’ setting was also switched on by default.

The case was originally brought to court by Australia’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), for what it deemed as deception to Google’s users.

In handing down his judgement, Justice Thomas Thawley told the court, “I am satisfied that Google’s conduct assessed as a whole was misleading or deceptive of, or likely to mislead or deceive, ordinary members within the class identified by the ACCC, acting reasonably.”

In a statement, the ACCC’s Chair, Rod Sims said, “This is an important victory for consumers, especially anyone concerned about their privacy online, as the court’s decision sends a strong message to Google and others that big businesses must not mislead their customers.”

“Today’s decision is an important step to make sure digital platforms are up front with consumers about what is happening with their data and what they can do to protect it,” he said.

Penalties are expected to be determined at a later date. A Google spokesperson said in a statement that the tech giant rejects many of the claims and, “are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal.”

Why Google collects location data and why you should care

According to Google, it collects your data to provide “useful, meaningful experiences”. When Google says this, it’s largely talking about tailoring its services to provide more personalized features. 

When it comes to your location data in particular, it isn’t just used to help you with directions. Google might also use it to ensure your search results include places near you, or showing you what times your local restaurants are typically busy. Google can also infer your location using your recent search history, for example, if you were to search for ‘bars in London’.

On your smartphone, Google does this by constantly ‘talking’ to nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks, and using this information it can keep a very detailed and accurate timeline of your movements. 

If you want to stop Google from collecting location data, you’ll need to check your Google account settings. 

To do this, head to myactivity.google.com. Then, check the settings in the ‘location history’ and ‘web and app activity’ section of your Google Account. You’ll have the choice of switching off certain activity, or disabling them entirely.

Google also advises that users can delete any personal data that’s already been collected through their Google Account.

Jasmine Gearie

Jasmine Gearie is TechRadar Australia’s resident deals expert, with a keen eye for hunting down the best Aussie discounts on everything from laptops and phones to cameras, headphones and mobile and broadband plans.