Google was sued on Tuesday in a proposed class action accusing the internet search company of illegally invading the privacy of millions of users by pervasively tracking their internet use through browsers set in ‘private’ mode.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs accused Google of becoming ‘an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it.’
The complaint states: ‘Through its pervasive data tracking business, Google knows who your friends are, what your hobbies are, what you like to eat, what movies you watch, where and when you like to shop, what your favorite vacation destinations are, what your favorite color is, and even the most intimate and potentially embarrassing things you browse on the internet—regardless of whether you follow Google’s advice to keep your activities “private.”
‘Indeed, notwithstanding consumers’ best efforts, Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it.’
Google’s ‘incognito’ mode is promoted as offering a higher level of privacy for browsers. A new lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, accuses Google of still tracking people despite the mode being on
The lawsuit seeks at least $5 billion, accusing the Alphabet Inc unit of surreptitiously collecting information about what people view online and where they browse, despite their using what Google calls Incognito mode.
‘Google’s practices infringe upon users’ privacy; intentionally deceive consumers; give Google and its employees power to learn intimate details about individuals’ lives, interests, and internet usage; and make Google “one stop shopping” for any government, private, or criminal actor who wants to undermine individuals’ privacy, security, or freedom,’ the complaint states.
The document, filed in the federal court in San Jose, California, alleges that Google gathers data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other applications and website plug-ins, including smartphone apps – regardless of whether users click on Google-supported ads.
This helps Google learn about users’ friends, hobbies, favorite foods, shopping habits, and even the ‘most intimate and potentially embarrassing things’ they search for online, the complaint said.
‘Google must be held accountable for the harm it has caused to its users in order to ensure it cannot continue to engage in the covert and unauthorized data collection from virtually every American with a computer or phone,’ the complaint said.
Their case comes a week after Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, filed a suit alleging that Google kept tabs on the whereabouts of its users even if they had turned off location tracking.
Brnovich said the behavior would violate the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.
A Google spokesman said Brnovich and the ‘contingency fee lawyers’ who brought the case have mischaracterized the company’s services, noting: ‘We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data.’
The damages sought in that lawsuit could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, with Arizona seeking all profits derived from the alleged deceptive practices, as well as a $10,000 fine per violation
Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesman, said the Mountain View, California-based company will also defend itself vigorously against the news claims.
‘As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity,’ he said.
Google has said it will vigorously defend itself against the lawsuit, which seeks $5 billion
While users may view private browsing as a safe haven from watchful eyes, computer security researchers have long raised concern that Google and rivals might augment user profiles by tracking people’s identities across different browsing modes, combining data from private and ordinary internet surfing.
The complaint said the proposed class likely includes ‘millions’ of Google users who since June 1, 2016 browsed the internet in ‘private’ mode.
They note that Google’s huge success – the parent company, Alphabet, is worth $950 billion – results from its ‘unparalleled tracking and collection of consumer personal information and selling and brokering of that information to optimize advertisement services.’
It seeks at least $5,000 of damages per user for violations of federal wiretapping and California privacy laws, and the plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial.
In the complaint, they state: ‘Google receives detailed, personal information such as the user’s IP address (which may provide geographic information), what the user is viewing, what the user last viewed, and details about the user’s hardware.’
Boies Schiller & Flexner represents the plaintiffs Chasom Brown, Maria Nguyen and William Byatt.
The case is Brown et al v Google LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 20-03664.