A lawsuit alleging that Google tricked users into believing their privacy was protected in Chrome’s incognito mode but internal company emails prove that the rulers knew he was doing anything but. The supplier risks big, up to more than 5 billion dollars.
A California federal judge is investigating complaints against Google alleging the company misled users into believing their privacy was protected when using incognito mode in the Chrome browser. The lawsuit, initiated in California’s Northern District Court by five users more than two years ago, now awaits a recent class action petition from those plaintiffs. One of the complaints concerns Chrome users with a Google Account who accessed a non-Google website that contained a Google tracking or advertising code and were in private browsing mode; the second covers all Safari users, Edge and Internet Explorer with a Google Account who accessed a non-Google website containing Google tracking or advertising code in private browsing mode. According to court documents first uncovered by Bloomberg, the group’s employees joked about the browser’s Incognito mode and how it didn’t really provide privacy. They also blamed the company for not doing more to give users the privacy they thought they had. “As plaintiffs fight the company’s cynical efforts to block the production of relevant evidence, another hearing took place on October 11, which could have major consequences for the trial,” a spokesperson for the lawsuit said. Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, the firm of lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. “The plaintiffs’ motion has been argued and they are currently awaiting a decision.”
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers will decide whether tens of millions of Chrome’s incognito mode users can be grouped together to seek statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation, potentially driving up the fined over $5 billion. The definition of the word incognito is to disguise or conceal one’s identity. Web browser privacy settings are intended to remove local traces of the websites a user visits, what they search for, and what information they fill in online forms. Simply put, privacy modes like Incognito are not supposed to track and record data about online searches and websites visited by users. Google is also facing user privacy-related lawsuits from the Justice Department and attorneys general in several states, including Texas, Washington, DC and Washington State. Earlier this month, Google settled a lawsuit filed by the Arizona AG for $85 million. “This is the leading civil case surrounding Google’s incognito browser,” Boies spokesman Schiller Flexner said. Originally filed in June 2020, the class action seeks at least $5 billion, accusing the Alphabet unit of surreptitiously collecting information about what people see online and where they browse, despite using incognito mode. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say that they have a slew of internal Google emails proving that executives have known for years that incognito mode doesn’t do what it claims. When a user chooses to use this Incognito mode, Google’s web browser is supposed to automatically delete browsing history and cookies at the end of a session.
Data sold for advertising purposes at auction
The plaintiffs, who are Google account holders, alleged that the search engine collected their data, distributed it and sold it for targeted advertising through a real-time bidding (RTB) system. Plaintiffs allege that even in Incognito mode, Google can see which websites Chrome users visit and collect data through means that include analytics, fingerprinting techniques, concurrent apps and processes on a consumer’s device. as well as AdManager. The latter is a Google service that allows businesses to serve and report on a business’s web, mobile, and video advertising.
According to a report, more than 70% of all websites online use one or more of these services from the Mountain View firm. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that whenever a user in incognito mode visits a website that is running Analytics or Ad Manager, the search giant’s software scripts on the website surreptitiously instruct the user’s browser to send a secret, separate message to its servers in California. “Google learns exactly what content the user’s browser software was asking the website to display, and it also passes a header containing the URL information of what the user viewed and requested online. The IP address of the device, the geolocation data and the identifier of the user are all tracked and logged by Google,” according to a court record. “Once collected, this mountain of data is analyzed to build digital records on millions of consumers, in some cases identifying us by name, gender, age, and the medical conditions and political issues we researched in line,” the lawsuit argues.
Revenues that disappear in the event of truly private browsing
In March 2021, a California judge denied 82 motions by Google’s attorneys to end the lawsuit and ruled against the company, allowing it to proceed. In July, the company was ordered to pay nearly $1 million in legal fees and costs as a penalty for failing to disclose evidence in the lawsuit in a timely manner. “This type of reprimand from a court was unprecedented for the publisher, but apparently has not deterred the company from engaging in further discovery misconduct as it continues to block the plaintiff’s efforts to gather essential evidence,” Boies spokesman Schiller Flexner said.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the provider told The Washington Post this week that it has been candid with users about what its Incognito mode offers for privacy and that the plaintiffs in the case “deliberately misrepresented our statements.” Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, said the company makes the majority of its revenue by tracking everyone and selling ad space. “If they’re really creating a completely private browsing experience, then the revenue stream is gone,” he said. “So I suspect there is a balancing act going on internally to determine where the boundaries between privacy and privacy lie. No company creates a free browser without being able to generate revenue in some way”. The plaintiffs in the case said they chose private browsing mode to prevent others from learning what they are looking at on the internet. For example, users often enable private browsing mode in order to visit particularly sensitive websites that may reveal things such as a user’s dating history, sexual interests and/or orientation, political views or religious, travel plans or private plans for the future (e.g. buying an engagement ring). “I think the main thing is for Google and other browsers – that the user beware,” said Jack Gold.