Google Slapped With $5 Billion Lawsuit Alleging Chrome Incognito Mode Tracking

Google faces a proposed class action lawsuit seeking at least $5 billion in damages over its data collection policies tied with its Chrome browser, and specifically the browser's Incognito mode. According to the lawsuit, Google engages in "surreptitious tracking" by collecting browser histories and other web activity "no matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy."

Part of what makes the lawsuit interesting is it alleges Google is running afoul of federal and California state laws on wiretapping.

"Google must be held accountable for the harm it has caused to its users in order to ensure it cannot continue to engage in the covert and unauthorized data collection from virtually every American with a computer or phone. This action arises from Google’s unlawful and intentional interception and collection of individuals’ confidential communications without their consent, even when those individuals expressly follow Google’s recommendations to prevent the tracking or collection of their personal information and communications," the lawsuit states (PDF).

Other lawsuits alleging improper data collection activities have been filed against Google in the past, though this one is somewhat unique in that it is leaning on the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968, which affords people a level of protection over their private communications. According to the lawsuit, is in violation of the statute because it intercepts data between Chrome users and websites, even when using the browser's Incognito mode.

Where the lawsuit seemingly faces an uphill battle, however, is how it perceives Incognito mode in Chrome. While it is indeed labeled as a private browsing mode, Google is very clear that a user's activity "isn't hidden from websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider."

What the private browsing does is rather simple—it opens a new browsing session separate from a regular Chrome window and refrains from saving browsing histories, cookies, site data, and information entered into online forms. In a support document on the topic, Google states very clearly "your activity might still be visible.

"We strongly dispute these claims, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them," a Google spokesman told The New York Times. "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."

Nevertheless, the lawsuit alleges Google's policies "intentionally deceive consumers" into thinking their browsing habits are private from the world at large in Incognito mode.

"Through its pervasive data tracking business, 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'," the lawsuit states.

The breakdown of the damages sought by the lawsuit includes at least $5,000 for each of Chrome's likely "millions" of users who browsed in Incognito mode since June 1, 2016.