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Google to Destroy Billions of “Incognito” Tracking Records

Google will now have to destroy billions of “incognito” records after settling a four year lawsuit on Monday.

Image shows phone on Google Chrome's incognito mode.
A lawsuit was filed in 2020, alleging Google tracked users activity on Incognito mode. Credit: Shutterstock/Mercigod

Google is to destroy billions of “incognito” mode records from its Chrome browser’s “incognito” mode. The tech giant is doing so in order to settle a lawsuit claiming that it secretly tracked the browsing history of users who thought they were browsing privately.

This development comes after a proposed class action settlement was filed in San Francisco federal court on Monday. A legal filing notes Google will “delete and/or remediate billions of data records that reflect class member’s private browsing activities.”

The settlement value is $5 billion, according to Monday’s filing. However, estimates of the value go as high as $7.8 billion.

What did the plaintiffs have to say?

The settlement comes from a lawsuit filed four years ago. The lawsuit alleges Google misled users by letting them believe they were not tracking their searches while on “incognito” mode. The lawsuit aimed to get Google to destroy the billions of “incognito” records it held.

Those who filed the lawsuit said that Google’s analytics, cookies, and apps allow the Alphabet unit to track people who use “incognito” mode. The Alphabet unit is also alleged to track the activity of those browsing in “private” mode.

They went on to say that this made Google an “unaccountable trove of information.” How it makes Google so is that it could reveal the “most intimate and potentially embarrassing things” searched for by users.

Image shows Google building, with Google logo on front.
The tech giant agreed to settle the lawsuit at the end of 2023. Credit: Shutterstock/Benny Marty

The settlement filing said,

“This settlement is an historic step in requiring dominant technology companies to be honest in their representations to users about how the companies collect and employ user data, and to delete and remediate data collected.”

Despite Google agreeing to settle in December, Monday’s filing provides greater detail on the agreement between Google and the plaintiffs.

What is the impact of the settlement?

The terms of the proposed settlement were filed on Monday. They will have to be approved by US District Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers.

The proposed settlement in Brown v. Google will mandate greater company disclosure on how it collects information in “incognito” mode.

The settlement will also require Google to make alterations to “incognito” mode. Moreover, these changes will allow users to block third-party cookies by default for the next five years.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote,

“The result is that Google will collect less data from users’ private browsing sessions and that Google will make less money from the data.”

Users will not necessarily receive damages, but they may still sue for damages to the individual.

Has Google responded to the question of having to destroy “incognito” records?

Google supports the final approval of the settlement from Judge Rogers but disagrees with the plaintiffs’ “legal and factual characterizations.”

Lorraine Twohill, Google’s chief marketing officer, wrote: “We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging,” when writing to Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, in 2019.

Is this the first lawsuit of this kind against Google?

Google has faced similar lawsuits in the past.

An example of this can be seen in 2022, when the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, sued the company. Paxton alleged that “incognito mode browsing, and ‘private browsing’ is a web browser function that implies to consumers that Google will not track your search history or location activity.”

Written By

Matthew McKeown is a student at Ulster University, in his final year of a BA History degree. His interests include current affairs, politics, and international relations.

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