Google attacked by EU consumer groups over location tracking


BRUSSELS • Google runs the risk of hefty fines from the European Union’s (EU) beefed-up data-protection watchdogs after consumer groups accused the search-engine giant of abusing tools that track users’ location.

Seven European consumer organisations yesterday said they would file complaints with their national regulators, who now have powers to levy penalties of as much as 4% of a company’s annual sales for the most serious violations. The groups accuse Google of collecting data that can reveal a lot more about its users than just their location, such as their political leanings or sexual orientation.

“Google’s data hunger is notorious, but the scale with which it deceives its users to track and monetise their every move is breathtaking,” Monique Goyens, DG of EU consumer organisation, BEUC, said in an emailed statement. The Alphabet Inc unit “is not respecting fundamental General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) principles, such as the obligation to use data in a lawful, fair and transparent manner,” she said, referring to the new rules. “The situation is more than alarming. Smartphones are being used for spying on our every move.”

New EU rules in force across the bloc since May 25 have increased the pressure on US technology companies such as Google and Facebook Inc, which have often faced the scrutiny of European regulators over privacy shortcomings. The EU’s GDPR gives all 28 regulators the same powers to reprimand and fine wrongdoers.

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In an emailed response, Google said that location history is turned off by default and users can edit, delete or pause it at any time, though switching it on helps improve services like predicted traffic on a commute home.

Google also makes clear to users that if they pause location history, it could still collect and use location data depending on other phone and app settings, the company said.

Google said users have other additional ways to control location data as well, including through devices as well as through a setting called web & app activity.

“We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board,” Google spokesman Al Verney said.

Facebook last month became the first big test case for the new EU rules after Ireland’s data watchdog opened a probe into a security breach that affected as many as 50 million accounts.

The consumer organisations will file the complaints in their own countries, including one in Norway. While not part of the EU, Norway adopted the new rules in July, alongside Liechtenstein and Iceland, all members of the European Economic Area.

Google “uses various tricks and practices” to ensure users have features such as location history enabled “and does not give them straightforward information about what this effectively entails,” BEUC added.

“These unfair practices leave consumers in the dark about the use of their personal data.”