Google’s “Incognito” Data Gathering Allegations Lead to a $5bn Lawsuit

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

The takeaways

  • Google was sued in a class-action lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that its products collect user information even when its browser’s “Incognito Mode” is engaged. 
  • The company defended its practice under its policy of transparency about how its product works. 
  • The lawsuit has been filed in California and alleges violations of both state and federal laws.

What happened?

Three U.S.-based plaintiffs, Chasom Brown, Maria Nguyen and William Byatt, brought a proposed class-action lawsuit against Google on Tuesday, June 02. The lawsuit accuses the search company of illegally invading millions of users’ privacy through tracking their internet use through the privacy mode of Google’s Chrome browser, known as “Incognito”. At least $5 billion, or up to $5000 per affected user, is sought in damages from Google and its owner, Alphabet Inc, for secretly collecting information about online viewing habits and website preferences. The lawsuit cites violations of California’s privacy laws and federal wiretapping.

The complaint was filed in the federal court in San Jose, California by law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner. It alleges that Google unlawfully engages in data gathering to build user profiles nonconsensually and does so through applications such as Google Analytics and Google Ad Manager, and website plug-ins and smartphone apps, whether users click on Google-supported ads or not. This includes particularly sensitive searches that would have been carried out in Incognito mode.

Google will fight their case

Google defended its actions and emphasized a policy of transparency about its practices. Company spokesman Jose Castaneda said, “As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity.” Once engaged, Incognito mode does allow users to choose to search the internet without saving their history or cookies to the browser or device. It also doesn’t cache the websites accessed using the setting. Google does caution that Incognito browsing doesn’t prevent websites from attaching third-party cookies of their own.

Previous skepticism about Google’s tracking practices has been publicly voiced before. In 2018, DuckDuckGo, a rival search engine company, stated in a study that Google personalized search results, even when the user has selected Incognito mode.

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