Google LLC and parent company Alphabet face yet another proposed class action over apparent privacy abuses, with the 42-page case alleging outright that no matter what a user does to protect themselves and their data, Google is “always watching.”
“Even when it promises to look away, Google is watching. Every click, every website, every app—our entire virtual lives. Intercepted. Tracked. Logged. Compiled. Packaged. Sold for profit.”
Though Google assures that users are in control of the information they share with the company, and purports to provide plenty of privacy management tools, the defendants’ promises are “blatant lies,” the lawsuit alleges. According to the complaint, Google intercepts, collects, tracks and sells users’ mobile app browsing histories and activity no matter what safeguards—including browsing in “incognito” or private browsing mode—or “privacy settings” are put in its way.
“Even when consumers follow Google’s own instructions and turn off ‘Web & App Activity’ tracking on their ‘Privacy Controls,’ Google nevertheless continues to intercept consumers’ app usage and app browsing communications and personal information,” the plaintiffs, Florida and California consumers, allege.
The suit, filed in California federal court, goes so far as to allege that even a consumer who completely avoids using Google-branded apps and devices is simply unable to escape the search giant’s tracking software given it’s baked into products and apps offered by other companies.
“In reality, Google is a voyeur extraordinaire,” the lawsuit says.
To accomplish its sweeping interception, tracking and collection of user internet behaviors and data, Google relies on its Firebase SDK, a suite of software development tools that purport to offer additional functionality to an app, according to the lawsuit. The case says third-party apps utilize Firebase SDK because its use is a prerequisite for access to tools such as Google Analytics, the company’s ad exchanges, and marketing within the Google Play Store. As the complaint tells it, developers are often left with no choice but to use Firebase SDK as a result of “Google’s demands and market power.”
Once Firebase SDK is in place for an app, however, the software development tools allow Google to automatically and systematically track and collect a user’s app activity data, the complaint alleges.
In all, Google’s infringement upon users’ privacy allows the company and its employees to learn intimate details about individuals’ lives, interests and browsing behaviors, the case says. Moreover, Google has effectively placed a target on itself for any government, private or criminal entity who may be in search of data that a user may have thought to be private, according to the suit.
Despite a user’s best efforts to protect their information, Google will come to learn nearly all there is to know and face little accountability for doing so, the lawsuit claims. From the case:
“Through its pervasive and unlawful communication interceptions and massive data tracking and collection business, Google knows every user’s friends, hobbies, political leanings, culinary preferences, cinematic tastes, shopping activity, preferred vacation destinations, romantic involvements, and even the most intimate and potentially embarrassing aspects of the user’s app browsing histories and usage—regardless of whether the user accepts Google’s illusory offer to keep such activities ‘private.’ Indeed, notwithstanding consumers’ best efforts, Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell himself could not have imagined it.”
The lawsuit looks to represent a class of those who, in the time since Google first offered the ability to turn off “Web & Activity” tracking (the class period), turned off “Web & Activity” tracking and whose mobile app activity was still tracked by Google via its Firebase SDK through a non-Google app on an Android or non-Android device.
The suit alleges violations of California’s Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, Invasion of Privacy Act and the federal Wiretap Act.
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