$5B Lawsuit Advances Over Chrome Incognito Privacy

John Lister's picture

Google will have to go to court to answer claims it misled users by tracking their online activity in a supposed private browsing mode. A judge agreed a lawsuit seeking $5 billion can go ahead with class action status.

That status doesn't change Google's chances of winning or losing, but could mean much bigger consequences if it does lose. It means anyone meeting set criteria could effectively be treated as a plaintiff, eligible for any financial awards, without having to launch their own case.

The case appears largely to come down to whether Google's wording is clear enough, rather than it actually being a dispute about what Google does.

Users Still Tracked Online

It's all about Incognito mode, the Chrome browser's version of a private browsing mode. It's main practical measure is that the browser doesn't store any information on the computer such as what sites the user visits, nor does it create any cookies.

Google specifically promotes the mode as meaning "other people who use this device won't see your activity." One of the more family-friendly examples of how that might be used is somebody ordering flowers as a surprise for their partner.

When accessing the mode, Google warns that activity could still be viewed by "websites you visit", "your employer or school" and "your Internet service provider." That's because the mode doesn't affect the visibility of data going to or from the computer. (Source: arstechnica.com)

Warnings Clear, Says Google

The people bringing the lawsuit say the problem is that Google itself uses data collected from browsing while in Incognito mode, for example through Google Analytics and Google Ad Manager. They argue that it's misleading for Google to promote browsing as private but still collect data from it. (Source: metro.co.uk)

Google maintains its warnings are clear enough. The case may come down to whether Google's list of who can view browsing activity is interpreted as a complete list (that doesn't explicitly include Google itself) or as examples of the general principle (that Incognito mode only affects the browser's local activity.

What's Your Opinion?

Does the case have any merits in your view? Do you use Incognito and similar modes? Do you feel you understand what such modes actually do?

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SteveMann's picture

Anyone who doesn't yet realize that nothing is free and the USER is the product is probably best not using a computer or phone.

Google will likely win in court.