Disregarding privacy settings can cost Google $5 billion. Californian users who feel they have been spied on illegally by the search engine provider are now demanding compensation with a lawsuit.
According to the complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Jose, California, on Tuesday, Google, through its subsidiaries Analytics, Ad Manager and other applications as well as website plug-ins and smartphone apps, is supposed to collect data from internet users even though they are using their browser in 'private mode'. Google may not participate in the covert and unauthorized collection of data from virtually any American with a computer or phone, the complaint said.
"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," it said in the filing.
Google spokesman Jose Castaneda announced that the company will take vigorous action against the allegations. "As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity", he said. The indictment said that by gathering information about users' browsing habits, Google could draw conclusions about friends, hobbies, favorite food, shopping habits - even the "most intimate and potentially embarrassing things" that users searched for online.
With this data, Google is able to place individually targeted advertisements and profit immensely from this privacy infringement. The class action lawsuit includes millions of Google users who have been browsing the Internet in incognito mode since June 1, 2016, and yet still data has been collected by Google. The affected parties view this as a violation of federal wiretapping protection laws and Californian data protection laws and are each demanding at least $5000 in damages.
This lawsuit has now triggered a discussion between tech experts whether incognito mode must prevent general tracking.
One side argues that incognito mode is only private on your local machine, meaning no data is stored locally on your computer or phone. In this interpretation of incognito mode, it is not meant to protect its users from tracking of online services such as Google.
While it is also possible to install Google Analytics browser opt-out extension to disable measurement by Google Analytics, privacy should be built in by default, argues the other side. The naming - 'incognito mode' or 'private mode' - tricks the users into expecting protection against general tracking by online services. While such a protection may not be included as a feature, the name alone is misleading and, therefore, the privacy of the users must be respected.
Whether the lawsuit against Google will be successful or not is still open. But the lawsuit itself has already sparked a very important discussion: What level of privacy can users expect when they use the internet, and what level of privacy should companies respect when it comes to user tracking and storing of personal data.
Laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are trying to establish a new internet: One where the privacy rights of citizens are being respected by online services and where users' data can not simply be abused for marketing and advertisements without user consent.
These laws are just the start, and a lot more needs to happen to build a truly privacy-friendly internet. Until then, users need to make a choice: Keep being tracked by Google, or replace Google & Co with privacy-respecting alternatives.