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The consumer watchdog’s court win over Google this month should serve as a warning to big tech that privacy and data settings must be made as transparent as possible, but more pressure will need to be exerted to dispel the opaque terms and conditions they impose on consumers.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) had alleged that Android devices, in 2017 and 2018, were set up in such a way that someone creating a new Google account would not be adequately informed about whether their location would be tracked or not.
At the time, Google made it sound as though turning off “location history” — a service that maps wherever you go with your devices — would stop the company from collecting data about a user’s location. But consumers also needed to turn off another setting, one with no mention of location data – “App and web activity”, to completely stop Google from tracking their location.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the federal court decision in its favour earlier this month was “an important victory for consumers, especially those concerned about their privacy online.
“The court’s decision sends a strong message to Google and others that big businesses must not mislead their customers. Consumers should not be kept in the dark when it comes to the collection of their personal location data.”
The exact penalties against Google are yet to be decided. But while this specific problem has been rectified since 2018 — the description of “App and web activity” now specifically mentions location data — understanding what happens to geographical information collected by your phone remains a minefield.
“Companies are choosing to treat privacy policies like marketing documents, and persuade consumers not to read further, and to not inquire further about how the information is being treated,” said University of New South Wales senior lecturer Dr Katharine Kemp.
“They do that by listing the most attractive sounding uses, and the most innocuous sounding uses of the information first, and leaving anything that would concern consumers to much later in the policy.”
With phones, this typically means telling people the benefits of each function with a check box to turn it on and off, but no clear message about the privacy implications unless you read a separate document.
It’s not clear exactly how settings need to be laid out to satisfy Australian consumer law’s specifications, as the ACCC has only recently begun examining settings in that context. But Dr Kemp said that current cases against Facebook and Google may help by adding further judicial interpretation.
“The decision’s highly relevant for Australian consumers, because of the potential impact not just on Google, but on companies all over Australia,” she said.
“They’ll now be taking another look at their privacy policies and privacy settings, to see whether they’re potentially misleading and could lead to a claim.”
Understanding Android and Google account location settings
You can find your Google account’s location data settings via the “Manage your Google Account” button in web browsers, Android device settings and Google’s iPhone apps. The relevant options are under the “data & personalization” heading.
“App and web activity” shows all the data Google’s collected from your use of its services, like web searches or Android apps you’ve used, and you’ll notice a lot of it includes location data. Turning it off will stop Google services from customising to your or making suggestions based on your data.
Meanwhile “Location history” lets Google keep track of where you go whenever you have a device signed in to your account. Again, turning it off may limit things like commute suggestions.
If you use and Android device there’s a second set of options to look at, in the location settings. “Location” is a big switch that lets you completely disable all location data, though that may make many apps not work properly. “Scanning” controls whether apps can activate Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to geographically orient themselves.
Finally “Google location accuracy” lets your phone use Wi-Fi, mobile data and more to refine the location information it gets via GPS. Google says it may use this collected data “in anonymous ways”, for example sharing with other users to power Find My Device and Maps directions.
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Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.