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Class Action Suits Challenge Facebook, Google Over Location Tracking

Reports Privacy

Tech giants Facebook, Google, and Apple harvest massive profits from the personal data that smartphone users share with them. Several recent lawsuits filed in California allege that these companies are reaping more than consumers intended.

Individuals from several states have filed a flurry of class action lawsuits against some of the world’s biggest tech companies for the misrepresentation of how they track users’ locations and of how they use that information — personal information the companies translate into advertising revenue. These suits have converged in the District Court for the Northern District of California, which sits in Silicon Valley. There is no single federal privacy law under which to sue; plaintiffs in these suits seek damages under California privacy laws, with differing remedies. If the plaintiffs are granted class action certification, potential damages from the lawsuits could have a direct impact on the billions of people — more than three quarters of American adults — who own a smartphone.

An Associated Press investigation published in August found that Google apps on iPhones and Android devices tracked users’ locations and stored that data even after users had selected privacy settings telling the company not to track that data. Three days after the Associated Press story broke, Google changed the description on its Location History setting. The following day, Napoleon Patacsil of San Diego filed suit in the Northern District of California, seeking unspecified damages under the state’s constitutional right to privacy and Invasion of Privacy Act. Activists also urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google violated its 2011 consent decree promise not to misstate “(1) the purposes for which it collects and uses covered information, and (2) the extent to which consumers may exercise control over the collection, use, or disclosure of covered information.”

Other plaintiffs have filed similar complaints against Google under other legal theories, seeking varying forms of damages. Plaintiffs in Lee, Smedley, & Davis v. Google, Inc., seek relief under Colorado consumer protection law as well as California privacy law. In addition to monetary damages for each member of the enormous class, they want Google to explain what they did with users’ data, promise never to do it again, destroy that data, and forfeit the revenue it raked in from collecting that data. Plaintiff in Kaufman v. Google LLC similarly seeks relief under Florida consumer protection law — relief in the form of Google stopping its recording of data, destroying the data it has already recorded, and instructing users how to turn off the company’s location tracking. In George Jack v. Google, Inc., plaintiff alleged that, under New York business law, Google negligently and intentionally misrepresented their privacy settings to users, by allowing users to think they had opted out, while continuing to collect their location data.

Plaintiffs Brendan Lundy and Myriah Watkins of Colorado filed suit against Facebook as well as Google for unauthorized location tracking, and also included Apple as a defendant based on the allegation that the company “knew or should have known” the extent to which third party apps could access users’ data. In this suit as well as the similar Heeger v. Facebook, Inc., Facebook has been hit with allegations of tracking and logging users’ locations even when users select settings specifically telling the company not to do so. In addition to claiming relief under state privacy and consumer law, plaintiff Brett Heeger claims Facebook violated its 2011 consent decree “…not [to] misrepresent in any manner… the extent to which it maintains the privacy or security of covered information.”

In a response to the initial complaint by Patacsil, Google contended that Patacsil, and smartphone users like him, have no grounds to sue the company because they consented to the company’s use of their data. Google maintains that it disclosed its data use in its privacy policy and terms of service. The legal results of the growing stack of class actions challenging Facebook, Google and Apple will determine whether acceptance of that fine print constitutes user consent to carrying a location tracker in their back pocket.