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Google Deleting Millions Of Users' Incognito Data

Tech News : 3rd April 2024

Google Deleting Millions Of Users' Incognito Data


As part of a deal to resolve a class action lawsuit in the US dating back to 2020, Google has said it will delete the incognito mode search data of millions of users. 

What Lawsuit? 

In June 2020 in the US, three Californians named Chasom Brown, Christopher Castillo, and Monique Trujill (along with William Byatt of Florida and Jeremy Davis of Arkansas) brought a lawsuit against Google’s Incognito mode. They filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and potentially millions of other Google users who believed their data was being collected by Google despite using Incognito mode for private browsing.  

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The plaintiffs accused Google of capturing data despite assurances that it would not, thereby misleading users about the privacy level provided by Incognito mode. For example, internal Google emails highlighted by the lawsuit appeared to show that users using incognito mode were actually being tracked by Google to measure web traffic and sell ads. 

The original lawsuit was seeking at least $5 billion in damages from Google. 

What’s Been Happening? 

Since the lawsuit was originally filed, some of the main events of note between the plaintiffs and Google have included: 

– Google attempting to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that it never promised complete privacy or non-collection of data in Incognito mode. At the time, Google pointed to the disclaimers presented to users when opening an Incognito tab, which stated that activity might still be visible to websites, web services, and employers or schools. 

– A judge then rejected Google’s request to dismiss the case. The judge emphasised that Google didn’t explicitly inform users that it would collect data in the manner alleged by the plaintiffs. This decision meant that the lawsuit could again move forward. 

– Finally, back in December last year, with the scheduled trial due to begin in February 2024, the lawyers for Google and the plaintiffs announced that a preliminary settlement had been reached, i.e. Google had agreed to settle the class-action lawsuit. In doing so, Google acknowledged that it needed to address the plaintiffs’ concerns (but without admitting wrongdoing).  

– In January, however, following the preliminary settlement announcement, Google updated its disclosures, clarifying that it still tracked user data even when users opted to search privately or used its “Incognito” setting. 

– Google also said it was trialling a new feature that could automatically block third-party cookies (to prevent user activity being tracked) for all Google Chrome users and had made the block automatic for Incognito just after the lawsuit was filed. It’s also understood that as part of the settlement deal, this automatic block feature will stay in place for 5 years. 

Mass Deletions 

Under the terms of the final settlement, the full details of which are not publicly known, Google has agreed to delete hundreds of billions of the private browsing data records that it collected (with incognito).

 

Google Says…

 

A Google spokesperson has been quoted as saying that the company was pleased to settle the lawsuit which it “always believed was meritless” and that it is “happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalisation”. 

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

This agreement came after extensive legal battles and discussions, which in themselves highlight the complexities surrounding user privacy and data collection practices in the digital age. Part of the complexity in the case appeared to be trying to decide whether, as the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued, Google was misleading users and violating privacy and wiretapping laws or, as Google’s lawyers said, Incognito mode was designed to allow users to browse without saving activity to their local device but not to entirely prevent Google or other services from tracking user activities online.

Google has consistently denied wrongdoing and maintained its stance. However, Google (and its parent company Alphabet) are already facing two other potentially painful monopoly cases brought by the US federal government and had to pay £318m in 2022 in settlement of claims brought by US states over it allegedly tracking the location of users who’d had opted out of location services on their devices. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Google has opted to settle in this most recently concluded case although, in addition to having to delete hundreds of billions of browsing records, there are no public details yet of what else it’s cost.

The settlement, therefore, will be seen by many as a victory in terms of forcing dominant technology companies to be more honest in their representations to users about how they collect and employ user data. For big tech companies such as Google, privacy and tracking have become a difficult area. Google had already moved to free itself from other volatile privacy matters around browsing by announcing back in 2020 that it would be looking to eliminate third-party cookies within two years anyway (which has been delayed) and cookies have been subject to greater regulation in recent years.

This latest settlement is bad news for Google (and advertisers) however it is likely to be good news for the many millions of Google Chrome users whose interests were represented in the class-action lawsuit.

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