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Google“Private Browsing” Mode is Spying on You


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$5 Billion Privacy Violations Lawsuit Claims Google Violated Federal Wiretap Laws by Tracking Users in “Private Browsing” Mode.

Google’s legal troubles continue as a class-action lawsuit has been filed in California alleging that the company violated federal wiretap laws by collecting data when users were in “private browsing” mode. The suit also cites privacy violations under a California law that requires both parties to give consent to have any private communications monitored.

The lawsuit centers on “incognito mode” in Google’s Chrome browser, which is supposed to protect the user’s privacy. Though this mode prevents browsing history, cookies, and the content of forms from being saved to the local device, it does not necessarily keep it private from Google or prevent third-party privacy violations. The lawsuit is alleging that Google intercepts search queries, browsing history, specific website URLs, IP addresses, and browser and device information among other pieces of private and personally identifiable data.

Google claims that it warns users that this sort of data may be visible to third parties on the internet even if the incognito mode is activated; this appears to be true on the company’s support page, though it does not specify that Google cannot see or does not log the information. In a statement in which it said that it would “vigorously defend” itself from the claims, a Google spokesman also said that Chrome relays a similar message to the user every time users open a new incognito mode browser tab.

The New York Times reports that the private browsing lawsuit was initiated by three people with Google accounts: Chasom Brown and Maria Nguyen, both of Los Angeles, and William Byatt, a Florida resident. The proposed class-action suit claims that end users have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using a private browsing mode and that Google “intentionally deceives” consumers about the level of control they have over how much personal information the company retains.

Should Google be found liable, the company could potentially be on the hook for about $5 billion in fines for privacy violations involving hundreds of millions of Chrome users. The period of eligibility would date back to June 1 2016.

What do the laws say about the alleged privacy violations?

The suit claims that Google is violating the Federal Wiretap Act on the basis of failure to collect the consent of the end-user. It asserts that Google’s requests for these pieces of personal information are done not just without consent, but without even adequately notifying the end-user that the communication is taking place. It points out that elements like Google Analytics and Ad Manager are generally invisible to the end-user without digging into the HTML code of the web page, and that Google does not require that the presence of these elements be disclosed by individual sites that partner with them. Private browsing mode also does nothing to provide any added information to the end-user.

The state-level privacy violations charge is under the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA), which also requires the consent of all parties for any private communication to be intercepted or recorded. The case here is similar, alleging that private browsing mode creates a false sense of security and that consent cannot be obtained if the end-user is not fully informed of what is happening in the background.


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