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Googlers in 2018 were just as confused by their privacy settings as you were

Google says its data gathering has improved since.

Published onAugust 26, 2020

Google I/O 2019 Privacy Controls
  • Company emails revealed in a lawsuit show that Google workers were confused about their company’s location settings.
  • The suit claims that Google’s data gathering practices broke Arizona law.
  • Google says its privacy settings have improved since.

Have you had trouble figuring out Google’s privacy settings at times? Don’t worry — even the company’s employees have had that problem. The Arizona Mirror (via Ars Technica) has obtained internal emails from a state lawsuit revealing that some Googlers were confused about location privacy settings after reading an August 2018 Associated Press article on data tracking.

Staff complained that the location data toggles weren’t clear — it wasn’t obvious that there were universal and per-device switches, or that there would otherwise be exceptions. The interface “confuses users,” one worker wrote, while another said the interface felt designed to make things feasible, but tricky enough that you wouldn’t “figure it out.”

“This is enough to confuse a privacy-focused [Google engineer],” one staffer wrote. “That’s not good.”

Even Googlers are confused by location settings

The lawsuit also showed that Google invoked a crisis mode when the AP piece arrived, and held a meeting to discuss the story.

A Google spokesman talking to the Mirror characterized the email quotes as “cherry-picked” and pointed out that its engineers “work continuously” to improve location settings and other privacy tools, noting that the employees in question were striving for better controls.

See also: Is selling your privacy for a cheaper phone a good idea?

The emails surfaced as part of a lawsuit accusing Google of violating Arizona’s Consumer Fraud Act through its data gathering practices. The messages had initially been sealed, but industry groups Digital Content Next and News Media Alliance succeeded in unsealing relevant documents.

Google’s approach to privacy has changed in the two years since the AP article surfaced. It brought privacy controls to its apps in October 2018 and has put a greater overall emphasis on privacy for both itself and third-party developers. That might only matter so much for the lawsuit at hand, however. Arizona is focused on data collection practices at the time of the original complaint, not how they are now, and Google could still face penalties for its past actions.

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