Google attracts $5bn lawsuit for tracking users in private browsing mode

A class-action lawsuit with a minimum claim of $5 billion has been filed in the US, alleging that Google tracks and collects consumer browsing history and other web activity data even if users launch a web browser with “private browsing mode” activated.

The class-action lawsuit, filed earlier this week in the U.S. District Court of California, alleges that Google uses various means to track user activity round the clock, even if users prefer to browse in private browsing mode to preserve their privacy.

These means include Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, various application and website plug-ins, and the “Google Sign-In button” for websites. These services are presently being used by over 70 percent of online websites and publishers.

Thanks to the use of these user activity tracking services, Google obtains information like users' IP addresses, websites visited by a user, what a user last viewed, and device information. As a result, "Google continues to track, collect, and identify their browsing data in real-time, in contravention of federal and state laws on wiretapping and in violation of consumers’ rights to privacy," the plaintiffs alleged.

They further alleged that by collecting and processing intimate details about individuals’ lives, interests, and internet usage, Google has made itself a “one-stop shopping” for any government, a private, or criminal actor who wants to undermine individuals’ privacy, security, or freedom. By offering the private browsing mode, Google is instilling a false sense of security among millions of users believing that their data is secure.

"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.

"This action arises from Google’s unlawful and intentional interception and collection of individuals’ confidential communications without their consent, even when those individuals expressly follow Google’s recommendations to prevent the tracking or collection of their personal information and communications," they added.

Google survived legal action in the UK for breaching user privacy

In October 2018, Google survived a similar legal action pursued against it in the UK when the High Court in London dismissed a class-action lawsuit that asked Google to be penalised for bypassing privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser to harvest personal data of up to 5.4 million iPhone users between 2011 and 2012.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2017 and was spearheaded by a group called ‘Google You Owe Us’ whose aim was to ensure that Google paid compensation to all affected iPhone users whose privacy was breached as a result of its actions.

"I believe that what Google did was simply against the law. Their actions have affected millions, and we’ll be asking the courts to remedy this major breach of trust. Through this action, we will send a strong message to Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley that we’re not afraid to fight back if our laws are broken," said Richard Lloyd, former executive director at consumer group Which?.

The class-action lawsuit was dismissed by London's High Court after Google's lawyers contended that there was no way to identify iPhone users who were affected by Google's actions. Supporting Google's assertion, the High Court observed that it was impossible to calculate the number of affected users, to what extent each user had been affected, and that the facts presented did not accurate support claims for damage.

After the class action lawsuit was dismissed, Lloyd termed the judgment as "extremely disappointing" and said that it rendered millions of people without any practical way to seek redress and compensation when their personal data has been misused.

"Google's business model is based on using personal data to target adverts to consumers and they must ask permission before using this data. The court accepted that people did not give permission in this case yet slammed the door shut on holding Google to account," he added.

MORE ABOUT: