Google accused of secretly tracking drivers with disabilities

Google needs to pump the brakes when it comes to tracking sensitive information shared with DMV sites, a new lawsuit suggests.

Filing a proposed class-action suit in California, Katherine Wilson has accused Google of using Google Analytics and DoubleClick trackers on the California DMV site to unlawfully obtain information about her personal disability without her consent.

This, Wilson argued, violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), as well as the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA), and impacted perhaps millions of drivers who had no way of knowing Google was collecting sensitive information shared only for DMV purposes.

“Google uses the personal information it obtains from motor vehicle records to create profiles, categorize individuals, and derive information about them to sell its customers the ability to create targeted marketing and advertising,” Wilson alleged.

According to Wilson, California’s DMV “encourages” drivers “to use its website rather than visiting one of the DMV’s physical locations” without telling drivers that Google has trackers all over its site.

Likely due to promoting the website’s convenience, the DMV reported a record number of online transactions in 2020, Wilson’s complaint said. And people with disabilities have taken advantage of that convenience. In 2023, approximately “40 percent of the 1.6 million disability parking placard renewals occurred online.”

Wilson last visited the DMV site last summer when she was renewing her disability parking placard online. At that time, she did not know that Google obtained her personal information when she filled out her application, communicated directly with the DMV, searched on the site, or clicked on various URLs, all of which she said revealed that either she had a disability or believed she had a disability.

Her complaint alleged that Google secretly gathers information about the contents of the DMV’s online users’ searches, logging sensitive keywords like “teens,” “disabled drivers,” and any “inquiries regarding disabilities.”

Google “knowingly” obtained this information, Wilson alleged, to quietly expand user profiles for ad targeting, “intentionally” disregarding DMV website users’ “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

“Google then uses the personal information and data to generate revenue from the advertising and marketing services that Google sells to businesses and individuals,” Wilson’s complaint alleged. “That Plaintiff and Class Members would not have consented to Google obtaining their personal information or learning the contents of their communications with the DMV is not surprising.”

Congressman James P. Moran, who sponsored the DPPA in 1994, made it clear that the law was enacted specifically to keep marketers from taking advantage of computers making it easy to “pull up a person’s DMV record” with the “click of a button.”

Even back then, some people were instantly concerned about any potential “invasion of privacy,” Moran said, noting that “if you review the way in which people are classified by direct marketers based on DMV information, you can see why some individuals might object to their personal information being sold.”

According to a Google spokesperson, Google does not own or control the data that businesses collect through Google Analytics and Google never uses Google Analytics data for its own ad targeting or profile building. Instead, businesses control the data and are required to alert customers when using Google Analytics and to get consent where legally required. Businesses are prohibited, through Google’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) policy, from collecting protected health information through Google Analytics.

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