$5bn Google Incognito Mode Tracking Lawsuit Inches Toward Trial

The tech giant, which stands accused of tracking user activity in Incognito mode, has just been denied a summary judgment.

A 2020 lawsuit that alleges Google violated the privacy of millions of users by tracking them via its supposedly private “Incognito” browser option has moved closer to trial, with a California judge denying the tech giant’s recent request for a summary judgment.

The potential implications are huge, not least for privacy-conscious internet users who use tools like VPNs and Google’s Incognito mode feature to protect themselves from tracking, but might not actually be browsing as privately as they think.

The question revolves around whether Google’s statements found on a variety of privacy policy and help pages did in fact give a perceived, cast-iron promise that Google would not collect data in incognito mode.

Google’s Incognito Lawsuit Moves Closer to Trial

This week, tech giant Google was denied a request for a summary judgment in a $5 billion lawsuit lodged against the company that alleges that Google invaded millions of users’ privacy rights by tracking their browsing activity while they used Incognito.

A court judge stated in the filing denying the judgment that “Google’s motion hinges on the idea that plaintiffs consented to Google collecting their data while they were browsing in private mode.”

“Because Google never explicitly told users that it does so, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that users explicitly consented to the at-issue data collection” the filing adds.

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The plaintiffs also claim to have evidence that Google has been mixing log data from private and regular browsing sessions to target users with personalized ads.

Google strongly disputes these claims, with a spokesperson telling The Verge that Incognito gives users the ability to browse the internet without having their activity saved to their browsers or devices.

Google’s Litany of Lawsuits

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Google has been hit with a hefty lawsuit, with a number of other groups taking the company to task in court.

In 2021, 36 state attorney generals filed a lawsuit against Google for alleged antitrust violations relating to the Android app store.

In the same year, Google lost its right to appeal the €2.42 billion antitrust fine imposed by the European Commission in 2017 for antitrust violations relating to the tech giant’s shopping feature.

In 2022, Google settled an $85 million privacy lawsuit in Arizona which alleged that the company violated the state’s consumer fraud act and misled users about the amount of data it was collecting.

More recently, Google agreed to pay $23 million to users who clicked on links in Google Search between 2006 and 2013, because it was sharing this information with other parties and sites without their knowledge.

Also this year, the company was hit with a far-reaching lawsuit relating to its AI products, with a complaint alleging that they were trained on data scraped from millions of Americans, which included copyrighted content. The same group filed a similar lawsuit against ChatGPT creators OpenAI.

How Do You Browse Privately Online?

We’ll cut to the chase: although there are ways to browse the internet more or less privately, it’s very difficult to do so in a completely anonymous fashion. Despite this, however, it’s still worth taking steps to secure and protect yourself.

One way to enhance your privacy is through a VPN. VPNs – or “virtual private networks” – funnel all of your data through private, encrypted servers before it reaches the internet, masking your IP address in the process. Just make sure you opt for a recognized provider like Surfshark rather than a free VPN you’ve stumbled across on the app store – they’re prone to leaking user data and often have very poor security infrastructure.

Another way to protect yourself from tracking is to use a privacy-focused browser like Brave, which doesn’t track you in the same way Google does. Admittedly, the results aren’t quite as accurate, but if privacy is your main priority, it’s definitely a good idea to make the switch.

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Written by:
Aaron Drapkin is Tech.co's Content Manager. He has been researching and writing about technology, politics, and society in print and online publications since graduating with a Philosophy degree from the University of Bristol six years ago. Aaron's focus areas include VPNs, cybersecurity, AI and project management software. He has been quoted in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, Cybernews, Lifewire, HR News and the Silicon Republic speaking on various privacy and cybersecurity issues, and has articles published in Wired, Vice, Metro, ProPrivacy, The Week, and Politics.co.uk covering a wide range of topics.
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