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Google agrees to delete incognito search data of millions of Chrome users

Tech giant to update disclosures about data collected in private browsing mode

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 02 April 2024 13:15
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Related: Google, Apple & Meta Under EU Investigation

Google has agreed to delete the incognito search data of millions of its Chrome browser users, according to a new legal filing.

The tech giant has been scrambling to settle a series of lawsuits ahead of a major antitrust case later this year. The case, brought by the US Justice Department, accuses the company of monopolising online search.

In the company’s fourth settlement in as many months, it agreed to delete billions of data points collected from users who browsed on Chrome’s incognito mode, which theoretically does not leave any trace of a user’s online activity on their device device.

As part of the settlement in this class action lawsuit filed in 2020, Google will keep in place for five years a change to the incognito mode that would block third-party cookies by default, limiting the volume of data websites can collect on Chrome users.

“This requirement ensures additional privacy for incognito users going forward, while limiting the amount of data Google collects from them,” lawyers for the plaintiffs said in the filing.

Google has claimed the incognito data it collected was never associated with individuals or used to personalise their accounts.

But the lawsuit argued that Google’s marketing of incognito misled users into thinking the private browsing mode wouldn’t track their internet activities.

“Even when users are browsing the internet in ‘private browsing mode’, Google continues to track them,” the plaintiffs said. “Google’s tracking occurred and continues to occur no matter how sensitive or personal users’ online activities are.”

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In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs quoted from internal company emails showing employees complaining to management that the incognito mode was not living up to its name.

“We need to stop calling it incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon,” one employee reportedly wrote to colleagues in 2018.

“Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it,” lawyers who sued the company wrote.

While the suit was pending, Google changed the incognito mode splash screen to tell users that their schools, employers and internet service providers as well as the websites they were browsing could see their activity.

Now, under the settlement, the tech giant will update disclosures about what it collects from users in private browsing mode.

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

The lawsuit sought $5bn in damages from Google but the tech giant will not be making any payment to its consumers as part of the settlement.

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