Google Judge Gets Peek at Her Court’s Role in Data-Mining Empire

A judge known as a sharp critic of how tech companies treat consumer privacy was “disturbed” to learn from Google last month that even the search bar on the public website for her court is feeding user information to the company.

Now comes an explanation from Google after U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh demanded one: The Alphabet Inc. unit relies on its code embedded in the public web page that helps it serve up advertising targeted at visitors. The information collected on those visitors is also used to “maintain and improve Google services,” according to the company.

Koh’s questions arose in the context of a lawsuit alleging that Google deceives users about the personal information it collects when they use Chrome’s “Incognito” mode, or “private browsing” in other browsers. Late Friday, Koh ruled over Google’s objections that the suit can move forward, although she didn’t specifically address data collected from the court website.

While close observers of Big Tech might not be surprised to learn that even a taxpayer-funded court website is not beyond Google’s commercial orbit, there’s nothing on the home page indicating that its search bar is powered by the company. A search for “my case” offers up four advertisements before showing content from the court’s website, all without any indication Google’s invisible hand is pulling the strings.

Read More: Google Must Face Suit Over Snooping on ‘Incognito’ Browsing

Koh, who sits on the bench in San Jose, California, has handled numerous precedent-setting privacy cases against the technology giants, including Google.

In response to Koh’s questions about what Google does behind the scenes on the court’s website, the company said it protects user information according to the terms of service for its programmable search engine that were agreed to by court administrators.

But lawyers for the Google users who are suing the company said its responses to the judge raise more questions than they answer. They claim Google failed to provide any details about the information it’s collecting from the court, how its embedded code works, and what it’s doing with user data.

The “intentionally vague” explanation provided by Google undermines its own defense in the lawsuit -- that users were aware of and agreed to its data collection, the plaintiffs said in a court filing.

“It defies reason for Google to expect users to identify and understand scripts and technologies used by Google to collect their private browsing information when even Google’s own attorneys, armed with sophisticated developer tools and unlimited resources, are unable to accurately do so,” according to the filing.

The case is Brown v. Google, 20-cv-03664, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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