Google Sued For Allegedly Tracking Chrome 'Incognito' Users

Google violates federal and California privacy laws by tracking Chrome users who browse the web in "incognito" mode, three web users allege in a new lawsuit against the company.

“Google tracks and collects consumer browsing history and other web activity data no matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy,” California residents Chasom Brown and Maria Nguyen and Florida resident William Byatt allege in a class-action complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Brown and the others say they were tracked by Google, despite using the Chrome browser's incognito mode to visit sites including CNN.com, Apartments.com and NYTimes.com. They claim that even in incognito mode, visiting a site that uses Google Analytics or Google Ad Manager results in Google's collection of IP addresses, browser and device information, and web pages' content.

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When Chrome users command the browser to open an incognito window, they are greeted with a message stating that Chrome won't save browsing history, cookies and site data, and information entered in forms. But the message also tells users their activity may be “visible” to websites they visit.

That type of data can be used for “device fingerprinting” -- a controversial tracking technique that doesn't rely on cookies. 

“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 alleges.

Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda says the company "strongly" disputes the claims and plans to defend itself "vigorously" against them. 

"Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device, he says. "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."

As in numerous other privacy lawsuits, the users claim Google violates the federal wiretap law by intercepting electronic communications without permission from at least one "authorized party to the communication."

The users also claim Google violates various California privacy laws.

The new lawsuit comes around two months after a federal appellate court revived a lawsuit claiming Facebook violated the federal wiretap law by allegedly tracking people on outside publishers' sites via the “Like” button.

In that case, a three-judge panel rejected the argument that the presence of the “Like” button meant Facebook was a party to the communications between the publishers and users.

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