Google Sued For Tracking Users’ Data in Incognito Mode
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  • Google is facing a lawsuit for violating the privacy of millions using its private browsing mode on Chrome
  • The lawsuit means the tech giant is liable to pay $5bn for damages caused by deceiving consumers
  • The search engine has denied these claims and admits that websites collect users’ data in incognito

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach came to light in 2018 exposing the social media’s inability to protect its users’ private data. Since it has become even more essential that privacy is taken seriously. However, Google is now in the midst of yet another privacy scandal.

The tech giant has been handed a court case alleging that it has invaded people’s privacy by tracking their online activities even when browsing on incognito mode. 

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California by law firm Boies Schiller & Flexner, is now seeking $5bn from Google owner Alphabet. 

Currently the firm represents three plaintiffs, Chasom Brown, Maria Nguyen, and William Byatt. The proposed complaint says the firm might have wiretapped millions of Google users’ data and will be liable to pay for damages of minimum $5,000 per plaintiff who has browsed in incognito mode since June 1, 2016.

The lawsuit detailed that Google “cannot continue to engage in the covert and unauthorized data collection from virtually every American with a computer or phone”.

“People everywhere are becoming more aware (and concerned) that their personal communications are being intercepted, collected, recorded, or exploited for gain by technology companies they have come to depend on,” the law firm said in the filing.

Google has defended itself by saying that while people think their search history is not being monitored, it is not illegal for the firm to do as it warns users explicitly.

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Now, most people are aware of what ‘incognito’ mode is – wherein your searches are not saved in history and one can browse privately. However, users’ data and activity are still sent to third-party companies and site owners via Google’s ad manager and Google Analytics. 

To this, Google 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”.

Indeed, on opening an incognito tab, it clearly says “your activity might still be visible to websites you visit, your employer or school and your internet service provider.

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The spokesperson further added that tracking users’ search history helps sites “better evaluate the performance of their content, products, marketing, and more.”

To counter this issue, Google even rolled out an update for its browser dubbed Chrome 74 in 2019 which supposedly stops a website from tracking activity on incognito. Another option is to disable measurement by Google Analytics in the browser.

A history of infiltrating consumer privacy

This is hardly the first time that the tech giant is at the target of a lawsuit with respect to privacy. In February this year, New Mexico’s attorney general sued the firm on the back of tracking and spying on the state’s children by using its educational products. It claimed that Google violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“The consequences of Google’s tracking cannot be overstated: Children are being monitored by one of the largest data mining companies in the world, at school, at home, on mobile devices, without their knowledge and without the permission of their parents,” the lawsuit said.

Another such instance occurred in 2018 when the firm was sued over its location-tracking function. A report released at the time revealed that it was gathering location data even after users disabled their “location history.”

Although Google’s policy clarifies that users’ data will be tracked even if the robust controls are disabled – or in the present case – when browsing in private mode, it may not be easy for the company to regain people’s trust and turn off this new lawsuit any soon.