Google is facing court action in the US after incognito mode found to track users - what you need to know

Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 2:37 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 2:38 pm
What you need to know about the lawsuit going on in the US (Photo: Shutterstock)

A judge in California has ruled that Google has to face a class action lawsuit which claims that the tech giant secretly collects data from users - even when they’re using the private incognito mode.

The consumers who filed the case alleged that even when data collection is turned off in Chrome, other Google tools used by sites continue to collect their personal information.

‘Google continues to collect data’

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The complaint, which was originally filed in June 2020, says: “Google has anticipated that consumers are understandably concerned that Google is tracking their personal information and browsing history.

“To assuage them, Google promises consumers that they can “browse the web privately” and stay in “control of what information [users] share with Google”.

“To prevent information from being shared with Google, Google recommends that its consumers need only launch a browser such as Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge, or Firefox in “private browsing mode”. Both statements are untrue.

“When users undertake either - or both - of the aforementioned steps, 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.”

‘$5 billion lawsuit’

The complaint adds: “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 favourite vacation destinations are, what your favourite colour 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’.”

A federal judge denied Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc’s, initial request to have the case thrown out. The lawsuit seeks at least $5 billion in damages.

U.S District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, wrote in her ruling: “The court concludes that Google did not notify users that Google engages in the alleged data collection while the user is in private browsing mode.”

Google argued that users consented to its privacy policy, which the company says explicitly discloses its data collection practices.

In a court filing, Google said: “Google also makes clear that incognito does not mean invisible, and that the user’s activity during that session may be visible to websites they visit, and any third party analytics or ads services the visited websites use.”

‘Strongly dispute these claims’

In a statement, Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said: “We strongly dispute these claims and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them.

“Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device.

“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.”

Incognito mode

When you open a new incognito mode tab, users are told the following information:

“Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity. However, downloads and bookmarks will be saved.”

It explains that Chrome won’t save the following information:

  • Your browsing history
  • Cookies and site data
  • Information entered in forms

Your activity might still be visible to:

  • Websites that you visit
  • Your employer or school
  • Your internet service provider

You are also given the option to toggle on and off whether you want to block third party cookies.

“When on, sites can’t use cookies that track you across the web. Features on some sites may break,” the incognito mode tab states.