Sets Google based on GATE score

Problem business modelsGoogle gets tangled up in its own surveillance apparatus

The fact that Google tries in all possible ways to get information about the geographic position, the whereabouts and the movements of its users will not surprise anyone: The business model is called advertising, and it sells better if the advertiser knows where the advertising victim is . But many users are of the opinion that you can at least turn it off so as not to be watched every step of the way. That this is mere wishful thinking can be read in the recently released files of a lawsuit against Google in the US state of Arizona.

The information about where users are is worth cash for Google. By using the mobile network, it is possible to link advertising to more precise geographic data. The group does not deny that Google turns such movement data into money. After all, this is not illegal per se and is often the default setting, for example in Google's Android operating system for smartphones. However, the advertising company offers users to deactivate the collection of movement data if they want to opt out of this "location tracking".

However, the group's internal files, some of which have been blackened, show that even Google's own people are of the opinion that deselecting the collection of movement data is so obscured and complicated that it is almost impossible to avoid this tracking in practice. The Google employees did not even try to completely deactivate the collection of movement data. In internal company meetings, they talked to each other about how confusing and misleading the settings in their employer's software were.

The proceedings against Google are based on research and publication by the Associated Press (AP), which is well worth reading, in which the journalists explained in detail which movement data Android smartphones, but also Apple iPhones, collected about their owners, although the " location tracking ”was deactivated. The research showed that if you stop the "Location History" on your mobile device, you still do not stop Google from saving the movement data.

This deceptive business practice by Google is not lawful, the now public extended complaint (pdf) soberly states.

Unlawfully misled users

In practical terms, this means that many users may think that they have deactivated the tracking of movements and thus protected themselves against recording their whereabouts, because this is how it works in the software settings, but in fact this data is still stored and transferred to Google. In the original letter of appeal dated May 2020 (pdf), the Attorney General of Arizona, and thus the state's chief justice officer, had raised several allegations of violating consumer rights against Google. In particular because residence data is also collected and processed that is currently being used by the user Not The Republicans see this as a clear violation of the law.

In fact, it doesn't take too much imagination to conclude that this is intentional: the allegation is that Google is unlawfully misleading its users. The methods that Google uses to monitor movement data are sometimes "willfully deceptive" (deliberately deceptive). They are a violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, a law for consumer protection in the state.

Google's "far-reaching surveillance apparatus"

In the United States alone, there are more than forty antitrust proceedings against Google, and in various European countries the General Data Protection Regulation has been brought into position in several complaints against the storage of location data. The New York Times reported last week that extensive antitrust proceedings against the Google parent company Alphabet will be opened by the end of September. In the opinion of the US attorney general, both the search engine and the advertising marketing would not meet the requirements of the antitrust laws.

The advertising company is used to legal trouble. The Arizona case, however, is based on consumer rights and is of a fundamental nature in the sense that the core of the business model is explicitly attacked as part of the complaint. Google users are clearly referred to as “targets of a sweeping surveillance apparatus”.

What makes the case particularly special is that internal company documents on "location tracking" are now on record and in some cases are also public. The precise individual movement profiles are based in particular on the data from the smartphones that have the Android operating system installed. Although the data company in response to the AP research had refused to continue collecting the user movement data despite their express unwillingness, these documents speak a different language: “Testimony from Google employees and Google's internal documents confirm the conclusion of the AP story ". (Statements by Google employees and internal Google documents confirm the results of the AP story.)

The statements made it possible to refute the group's claim that users who deactivate the so-called “GAP” (Google ads personalization) would at the same time avoid the use of location data. This is not the case: if you switch off this geo-based advertising personalization, you will still receive advertising that is based on your own location.

The investigations against Google were not all too easy for the Attorney General of Arizona, Mark Brnovich: The notice of appeal refers to "Google’s uncooperative conduct, delay tactics". Google has long fought against the fact that some of the documents are now publicly available.

The statements from the internal information are all the more clear. A Google employee made the following observation about "location tracking" and the way in which the settings would have to be made in order to actually prevent the collection of movement data: It feels as if the usage structure was designed in such a way that the prevention of the Movement data storage is possible, but so difficult that people couldn't figure it out (“feels like it is designed to make things possible, yet difficult enough that people won't figure it out”).

In a press release on his complaint, Brnovich comes to the same conclusion as the Google employee: "It's nearly impossible to stop Google from tracking your movements without your knowledge or consent." Track your knowledge or consent.)

Google crisis meetings

Further information emerges from the papers that is seldom read: how Google reacts internally when, as in this case, the AP publication reports widely about the misleading of users with the aim of advertising monetization. In the files it is stated:

The day the AP story was published, Google turned into crisis mode and held a self-styled 'Oh Shit' meeting in reaction to the story.
(The day the AP story was published, Google went into crisis mode and held a self-titled 'oh shit' meeting in response to the story.)

In this meeting under the self-chosen motto Oh shit Media analyzes are also discussed, which have a certain taste. Because by the fact that Google with its search engine and the service Google News has a very precise insight into how a news story spreads across the continents and how it is referenced, a potential manipulative power arises.

A little piqued, it is noted that a total of less than fifty press inquiries were directed to Google. That is actually not much, measured against the range of the AP research: In the days after, the AP publication generated at least 4,600 mentions per hour at its peak, according to the Google media analysis published by ars technica (pdf). Most of them are classified as "negative pieces", so they are Google-critical articles. A separate social media report supplements this information in the Google crisis meetings.

After four days, the spook was over and Google could breathe a sigh of relief. Or maybe it was just a longer breather, because the Arizona Attorney General is obviously serious and can substantiate his legal opinion with the statements of the Google people sufficiently well. So the case is worth watching further.

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About the author


Constanze Kurz has a doctorate in computer science, author and editor of several books, most recently on cyber war. Your column “From the engine room” appeared from 2010 to 2019 in the features section of the FAZ. She is an activist and volunteer spokesperson for the Chaos Computer Club. She carried out research at the Humboldt University in Berlin at the chair “Computer Science in Education and Society” and was an expert on the “Internet and Digital Society” commission of inquiry of the Bundestag. She received the Werner Holtfort Prize for civil and human rights engagement, the Tolerance Prize for civil courage and the Theodor Heuss Medal for exemplary democratic behavior.Contact: constanze (at) (PGP).
Published 07.09.2020 at 11:23 am