Do you use the Google Chrome browser? More specifically, have you used incognito mode to browse privately? Lawyers have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking at least $5 billion (£4 billion) against Google that accuses it of illegally collecting information during those private browsing sessions.
If successful, the lawsuit is looking for damages of $5,000 (£4,000) for each individual who has used incognito mode since June 1, 2016.
What does the Google privacy violation lawsuit claim?
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by a partner at the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm, stated that the action is due to “Google’s unlawful and intentional interception and collection” of confidential communications without the consent of the individuals concerned. “Even,” the complaint continued, “when those individuals expressly follow Google’s recommendations to prevent the tracking or collection of their personal information and communications.”
If you open an incognito browsing session in the Chrome browser, Google displays a message which states that you can “browse privately” and continues to confirm that other people using the device cannot see your browsing activity. While this message does say that downloads and bookmarks will be saved, browsing history, cookies, site data and form inputs will not. The lawsuit, however, seeks to argue that Google “tracks and collects consumer browsing history,” and other web activity, regardless of the safeguards the user takes.
What does Google have to say?
A Google spokesperson said that the company would defend itself vigorously against the claims, which it strongly disputed. “Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device,” the spokesperson said, “As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.”
Indeed, that initial message in the incognito windows does state that user activity will still be visible to the websites visited, an employer or school and the internet service provider. The complaint, however, stated that Google “accomplishes its surreptitious tracking,” using methods such as Google Analytics, the Google Ad Manager and the Google Sign-In button for websites. It would appear to be the use of such tracking tools, and the failure to explicitly include them in that incognito message, that is at the heart of the matter here.
By continuing to collect and identify browsing data, the complaint stated, Google is in contravention of both federal and state laws on wiretapping which gives people the right to sue if private communications are intercepted.
The cybersecurity expert opinion
Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at ESET, said “private web browsing isn’t as private as you may think. Incognito modes tend not to record data onto the device, but this data still goes to your internet service provider, and some data goes to the website you are visiting. Many people misunderstand the term private and, without properly reading the terms and conditions, some will not realize that they are legally handing over a lot of personal data. To stay completely anonymous on the internet, dark web browsers protect your identity and can still be used to reach the open web while staying protected.”
Could you be in line for a $5,000 payout?
The proposed class-action lawsuit is seeking damages of at least $5,000 (£4,000) for each user who has browsed the internet in incognito mode since June 1, 2016. With this likely to be well over a million users, and if you are one of them, then if successful the class action could pocket you $5,000 for your trouble and cost Google north of $5 billion (£4 billion) in damages. It is, however, very early days when it comes to such legal cases, so don’t get your payday hopes up just yet.