Google Faces $5B Lawsuit Over Tracking Users In Incognito Mode

Written by Dana Sanchez
Google faces a $5B class-action lawsuit for millions of people who were allegedly tricked into giving up their web-use data while in incognito mode. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Three Google users filed a class-action lawsuit in San Jose, California, seeking $5 billion in damages for millions of people who were allegedly tricked into giving up their web-use data by promises of “private browsing” on Chrome while in “incognito mode.”

The lawsuit accuses Google’s ad division of claiming that incognito mode is private, but collecting information anyway about what pages users visit online and what they view, Reuters reports.

The complaint alleges that Google gathered data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other mobile apps to learn about users’ closest contacts, hobbies, dieting habits and other online searches.

“Through its pervasive data tracking business, Google knows … 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,'” according to the suit.

Google “cannot continue to engage in the covert and unauthorized data collection from virtually every American with a computer or phone,” the lawsuit argues. The complaint alleged that Google violated federal wiretapping and California privacy laws, and asks for at least $5,000 per person for the millions of people who’ve used incognito mode since June 1, 2016, The Next Web reported.

Private browsing translates to direct financial losses to websites and it’s the main reason why scripts that detect incognito modes have become popular in recent years, Catalin Cimpanu wrote for ZDNet.

Google said in 2019 that it would fix a bug that allowed sites to detect incognito mode, but no fix ever came.

“Nine months later, it is still possible to detect incognito mode in Chrome, and all the other Chromium-based browsers, such as Edge, Opera, Vivaldi, and Brave, all of which share the core of Chrome’s codebase.”

Many sites and apps include code from third parties that users are typically unaware, researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of Pennsylvania wrote in a study published in 2019. “Such ‘third-party’ code can allow companies to monitor the actions of users without their knowledge or consent and build detailed profiles of their habits and interests.”

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The lawsuit highlights Google’s statement that incognito mode allows users “to browse the web privately.” Google, on the other hand, says it advises users that “private” browsing doesn’t mean data isn’t collected, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Blocking incognito-mode detection will help Google earn some good faith with users who value their privacy and don’t like being denied service by websites just because they’re in incognito mode, Cimpnau wrote.

Internet search engine DuckDuckGo has accused Google before of personalizing search results in incognito mode, suggesting that Google’s private browsing mode isn’t anonymous either.