Google Must Face Suit Over Snooping on ‘Incognito’ Browsing

Google failed to kill a lawsuit alleging that it secretly scoops up troves of internet data even if users browse in “Incognito” mode to keep their search activity private.

The consumers who filed the case as a class action alleged that even when they turn off data collection in Chrome, other Google tools used by websites end up amassing their personal information. A federal judge on Friday denied the Alphabet Inc. unit’s initial request to throw out 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,” U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, wrote in her ruling.

The ruling comes as Google and Apple Inc. face intense scrutiny by lawmakers over their data gathering practices. Google has said it will next year eliminate third-party cookies that help advertisers keep tabs on consumers’ web activity and won’t employ alternative methods to track individuals.

“We strongly dispute these claims and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them,” Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda 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.”

Three Google users filed a complaint in June claiming the company carries on a “pervasive data tracking business.” Google collects browsing history and other web activity data even after users employ safeguards to protect their data such as using “Incognito” private browsing mode, according to the complaint.

“Google knows who your friends are, what your hobbies are, what you like to eat, what movies you watch, where and when you like to shop, what your favorite vacation destinations are, what your favorite color is, and 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 complaint.

Google argued the plaintiffs consented to its privacy policy, which the company said explicitly discloses its data collection practices.

“Google also makes clear that ‘Incognito’ does not mean ‘invisible,’ and that the user’s activity during that session may be visible to websites they visit, and any third-party analytics or ads services the visited websites use,” Google said in a court filing.

The case is Brown v. Google LLC, 20-3664, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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