Three residents of California, United States have sued Google in a class-action lawsuit for persistently tracking users and misleading users about Chrome’s privacy protections. Google continues to track users when they visit a website that uses Google Analytics or Google Ad Manager, even in Incognito mode, the lawsuit stated. It does so by collecting the address, browser and device information, and the webpage content that the consumer is actually looking at, it alleged, adding that this is when Google claims to be protecting the privacy of users when in Incognito mode.

“This is precisely the type of private, personal information users wish and expect to protect when they have taken these steps to control what information is shared with Google,” the suit said. The lawsuit was filed by California residents Chasom Brown, Maria Nguyen, and William Byatt individually and on behalf of all Google users whose activity was tracked from June 1, 2016 onward, against Google and its parent company Alphabet. They have demanded $5 billion in damages from Google.

Chrome’s Incognito mode stops the browser from saving user’s browsing history locally, but does not block Google or third-party companies from tracking users online. “Google’s tracking occurred and continues to occur no matter how sensitive or personal users’ online activities are. By tracking, collecting, and intercepting Plaintiffs’ personal communications indiscriminately—regardless of whether Plaintiffs have attempted to avoid such tracking pursuant to Google’s instructions—Google has gained a complete, cradle-to-grave profile of Plaintiffs without their consent” the lawsuit said.

At various points during Incognito browsing, Google ensures that user privacy is being protected, and that the user is in control of their information. At one stage, Google says that searching and browsing in “private browsing mode” will “turn off” any “search customization” and “using search-related activity”. But Google continues to track, collect, and identify their browsing data in real time, “in contravention of federal and state laws on wiretapping and in violation of consumers’ rights to privacy”, it alleged.

The lawsuit claimed that Google is in violation of the Federal Wiretap Act, which prohibits interception of content of electronic communication through the use of a safe device. It violates the California Invasion of Privacy Act, the suit further contested.

Google button tracks and ‘intercepts’ user activity, the lawsuit claims

Google’s “Sign-in with Google” button on third-party websites also has numerous tracking functions, which include the same type of automatic data collection as Google Analytics and Ad Manager. When a visitor’s browser loads the Google Button on the screen, Google’s code is called from its servers, which helps Google track the consumer.

Approved third-party data brokers such as Comscore, which is registered with California’s CCPA data broker registry, also provide digital pixels to be embedded within the Websites’ code, as per the suit. Google and Comscore are able to track and “measure” consumers by tracking these pixels and the unique resulting displays, even when users are in private mode, it claimed.

“Regardless of whether a user follows Google’s instructions advising how to be online without being tracked by Google”, it still leverages its other services “to intercept and collect identifying information about who and where individual consumers are” by analysing device and geolocation data – which it obtains through users’ numerous and unavoidable contacts with Google, the lawsuit said.