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Google to Face $5 Billion Lawsuit Over Incognito Mode Tracking

Most people think browsing in “Incognito” mode on Google Chrome means your session is hidden from website trackers and analytics software. Turns out that’s not quite true, and Google may soon be facing a lawsuit over tracking private browsing sessions. 🤯

Chrome’s Incognito mode is at the heart of a $5 billion class-action lawsuit that claims users are tracked during private browsing sessions. The lawsuit argues that Google is in violation of wiretapping and privacy laws that protect against tracking, intercepting, and collecting communications. ☎️

Google has tried to have the lawsuit, which was filed last June, dismissed. But a federal judge recently ruled the case can go forward. Here’s everything we know so far about the lawsuit, and how this information may affect you.

What Exactly Is the Google $5 Billion Lawsuit About?

Three Google users filed a class-action lawsuit in June 2020 accusing Google of operating a “pervasive data tracking business.” According to the complaint, the tech titan collects browsing history and other data even when users are in “Incognito” private browsing mode. 

The lawsuit claims that even after they turned off data collection in Chrome, some tracking tools used by websites still collected their personal information. For instance, user data may still be collected by Google Analytics even when a user visits a website in Incognito mode. The plaintiffs say they were under the impression that browsing in Incognito mode offered complete privacy from data trackers. 

Google denied any wrongdoing and tried to have the case thrown out. 😏 It argued users consented to its privacy policy, which explicitly lays out its data collection practices. It also said it makes it clear that “Incognito” does not mean “invisible.” Your browsing activity during a session may be visible to websites you visit through third-party analytics or ad services the websites use. 

“We strongly dispute these claims, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in an emailed statement. “Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device. As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.” 

Unfortunately, Google’s rebuttal wasn’t good enough for the court. Last week, a federal judge denied Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company) initial request to dismiss the case. 

“The court concludes that Google did not notify users that Google engages in the alleged data collection while the user is in private browsing mode,” said U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, in her ruling. 🔨

Can Your Google Incognito History Be Tracked?

According to Google, “In Incognito, none of your browsing history, cookies and site data, or information entered in forms are saved on your device. This means your activity doesn’t show up in your Chrome browser history, so people who also use your device won’t see your activity.”  

Google further adds that all data and cookies associated with your session are discarded when you close all Incognito windows. Chrome also “doesn’t tell websites, including Google, when you’re browsing privately in Incognito mode.” 

The above information is straight from the horse’s mouth. 🐴 Your Incognito history shouldn’t be trackable as long as you close all windows after a browsing session. Chrome also added a toggle to “block third-party cookies” in Incognito mode.

So either the lawsuit has no leg to stand on, or Google is bending the truth. We won’t know for sure until the plaintiffs present their evidence. However, the fact that a federal judge has ordered the case move forward does not bode well for the company. 

Is Google in the Wrong?

It’s still too early to tell if Chrome does allow third parties to track your browsing history in Incognito mode. This will be an interesting case to follow, as the plaintiffs will have to convince a jury that their claims have merit. ✅

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Instagram have all faced intense scrutiny in recent years over their data collection practices. Facebook recently agreed to a $650 million settlement over claims that it violated its users’ privacy by collecting biometric data without consent. Tiktok also recently agreed to pay $92 million to settle class-action lawsuits that accused it of harvesting user data and sending it to servers in China. 

Several tech companies have announced changes to better protect user privacy. For example, Google announced it will soon eliminate third-party cookies that help advertisers keep an eye on consumers’ web activity. It also won’t allow alternative methods to track individuals. 👀

If nothing else, this new lawsuit may create greater awareness of what Incognito mode can and can’t do. It might also encourage tech companies to stop burying important information about user privacy in their terms of service. No one ever reads those agreements from start to finish, which can cause problems when our privacy is at stake!