Google deletes incognito browsing data to settle privacy lawsuit

Alex Omenye
Alex Omenye

Google has agreed to dispose of billions of data records to resolve a lawsuit alleging that it covertly tracked the internet activities of individuals who believed they were browsing privately.

The terms of the settlement were submitted on Monday in the federal court of Oakland, California, and await approval from U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys estimated the settlement’s value to be over $5 billion, potentially reaching as high as $7.8 billion. Although Google is not paying damages, individuals retain the right to individually sue the company for compensation.

The class action lawsuit, initiated in 2020, encompasses millions of Google users who utilized private browsing since June 1, 2016. The users contended that Google’s analytics, cookies, and applications allowed its subsidiary, Alphabet, to improperly monitor individuals who activated Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode or other browsers’ “private” browsing mode.

They asserted that this transformed Google into an “unaccountable repository of information,” enabling it to glean insights into their social circles, preferences, hobbies, shopping behaviors, and even their most intimate and potentially embarrassing online searches.

As part of the settlement, Google will revise its disclosures regarding the data it collects during “private” browsing, a process that has already commenced. Additionally, it will permit Incognito mode users to block third-party cookies for a period of five years.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys emphasized that this settlement would result in Google gathering less data from users’ private browsing sessions and generating less revenue from such data.

Google’s spokesperson, Jose Castaneda, expressed satisfaction with the settlement, emphasizing that the company had consistently regarded the lawsuit as lacking merit. Castaneda clarified that Google never associates data with individual users when they use Incognito mode and affirmed the company’s willingness to delete outdated technical data that was never linked to an individual or utilized for personalization purposes.

In response, David Boies, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, hailed the settlement as a significant step toward demanding transparency and accountability from dominant technology firms.

A preliminary settlement had been reached in December, averting a scheduled trial on February 5, 2024. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed at that time. The plaintiffs’ attorneys intend to subsequently seek unspecified legal fees from Google.

The lawsuit, titled Brown et al v Google LLC et al, is pending in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, under case number 20-03664.

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