Google Agrees to Settle $5 Billion “Incognito” Privacy Lawsuit

Google has agreed to settle a $5 billion lawsuit that alleged it spied on people who used the Chrome Browser in incognito mode and the privacy modes of other Chromium browsers. The Google Chrome browser’s incognito mode includes greater privacy protections, allowing users to browse the Internet anonymously. A lawsuit – Brown et al v Google LLC et al – was filed in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California in June 2020 that alleged that Google continued to collect users’ browsing history through Google Analytics when users switched to incognito mode. The lawsuit alleged that Google’s activities violated federal wiretapping and Californian consumer privacy laws.

According to the lawsuit, the data collected by Google included an “unaccountable trove of information” about users that they thought would be private. Google used that data to serve advertisements to users that reflected their interests. Some of the activities users engaged in while in the incognito mode were meant to remain private and were potentially embarrassing. While privacy protections are improved in these private browsing modes, all they do is ensure that no browsing activities are stored locally in the browser.

Google initially sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, as while users may have believed that their online activities were kept private and confidential, Google did display a message to users when they activated incognito mode that their activities may still be visible to the websites they visit and to employers, schools, and Internet service providers. If a Chrome user visited a website that had certain advertising technologies in place, browsing activity could still be tracked and tied to that user via their IP address. The motion to have the lawsuit dismissed was based on the idea that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit consented to Google collecting their data while browsing in incognito mode, but because Google did not explain explicitly that it collected their data, the judge ruled that, legally, the plaintiffs could not be considered to have provided their consent to be tracked.

A trial was scheduled for February 5, 2024, by U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, California; however, the trial has now been put on hold as both parties have agreed to a settlement. The finalized settlement is expected to be presented to the judge for formal approval by February 24, 2023. The terms of the settlement have yet to be publicly disclosed, but it is likely to be much lower than the $5 billion in damages – $5,000+ per user – that was initially sought by the plaintiffs.

Author: Nathan Murphy

Nathan Murphy is news journalist on Nathan has worked as a writer on a number of publications, contributing hundreds of articles on a broad range of topics, with a particular focus on IT security. You can contact Nathan on LinkedIn and follow on Twitter