Google agrees to delete billions of Incognito mode data records

Google agrees to delete billions of Incognito mode data records
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A pattern of Google Incognito mode icons.

Google has promised to delete billions of records of browsing activity in its Incognito mode, after a class action lawsuit filed at a California federal court.

In December 2023, the tech giant decided to settle the case, which claimed that Google collects user data from the private mode available on the Chrome browser. The case, Brown v Google, was filed in 2020 by Google account holders who accused the company of “surreptitious tracking” of user data, and declared Google “‘one stop shopping’ for any government, private, or criminal actor who wants to undermine individuals’ privacy, security, or freedom.” The filing read:

Google tracks and collects consumer browsing history and other web activity data no matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy. Indeed, even when Google users launch a web browser with “private browsing mode” activated (as Google recommends to users wishing to browse the web privately), Google nevertheless tracks the users’ browsing data and other identifying information.

Under the settlement, Google said it will delete billions of data records and also provide greater transparency of the data it collects, letting users know what data is collected each time “incognito mode” is launched. These have already been implemented, with Chrome’s private browser displaying updated information. For the next five years, Google will additionally block third-party cookies as a part of the settlement.

The plaintiffs asked for $5 billion in damages, but the settlement holds no payment from Google. Individual users can instead pursue damages by filing their own complaints against Google in U.S. state courts. 50 people have already pursued this.

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José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement to CNN, “We are pleased to settle this lawsuit, which we always believed was meritless. We never associate data with users when they use incognito mode. We are happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization.”

The attorney representing consumers, David Boies, added in a statement that the settlement is “a historic step in requiring honesty and accountability from dominant technology companies”.

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