A class action alleges Google breaks its promises to never sell users’ personal information to third parties and to allow individuals to decide how their information is used “billions of times every day."
A sweeping proposed class action alleges Google breaks its promises to never sell users’ personal information to third parties and to allow individuals to decide how their information is used “billions of times every day” by way of its real-time bidding system for advertisements.
The 118-page lawsuit aims to hold Google accountable for allegedly selling and sharing personal consumer information with “thousands of entities, ranging from advertisers to publishers to hedge funds to political campaigns and even to the government” without disclosing to users that it does so.
Google operates the world’s largest real-time bidding auctions for which hundreds of participants receive sensitive user information about the potential receipt of an ad, the suit begins. This information can include device identifiers and cookies, location data, IP addresses and unique demographic and biometric information such as age and gender, the suit says.
According to the case, “[h]undreds of potential bidders receive this information even though only one—the auction winner—will use it to deliver an advertisement.” The lawsuit, citing regulators’ descriptions of Google’s ad-bidding process, relays that “[f]ew Americans realize that companies are siphoning off and storing that ‘bidstream’ data” to put together “exhaustive dossiers” about them, profiles that include web browsing, location and other data that’s sold to third parties.
At issue are who the complaint refers to as “surveillance participants” in Google’s ad-bidding process, parties who have no interest in filling ad space but who partake in Google’s real-time bidding for the sole purpose of gaining access to consumers’ bidstream data.
“Even though they do not bid, the Surveillance Participants’ presence drives interest and encourages competitive bids, which increases the reach and profitability of Google [real-time bidding],” the lawsuit says, noting that the bidding process “takes place in fewer than 100 milliseconds, faster than the blink of an eye.”
Google, who the suit describes as “a consumer data powerhouse unmatched in human history,” surreptitiously observes, collects and analyzes real-time information about everyone who engages with the company’s array of platforms, which include the Chrome web browser, Google.com search engine, Gmail email service, YouTube, Maps and a variety of cloud storage, calendars, fitness and video conferencing platforms, among other products, according to the lawsuit.
The case argues that because transparency about Google’s data collection and sharing practices would lead to less user engagement on its platforms, which would in turn hamper its revenue derived from maximally targeted ads, Google “fails to make accurate, transparent disclosures about those practices to its account holders,” choosing instead to make promises it has no intention of keeping. From the lawsuit:
“Google does not honor these terms. Without telling its account holders, Google automatically and invisibly sells Bidstream Data about them to thousands of different participants on the Google RTB billions of times every day. The Bidstream Data that Google sells and discloses to thousands of Google RTB participants identifies individual account holders, their devices, and their locations; the specific content of their Internet communications; and even highly personal information about their race, religion, sexual orientation, and health.”
The suit goes on to claim that bidstream data, contrary to Google’s promises, is not anonymous and includes detailed identifying data on users that’s “packaged” into “narrowly drawn, targetable categories.” Google does not disclose to account holders that it creates and uses massive data sets to identify them specifically in ad auctions, and cannot “plausibly or credibly claim it has account holders’ consent for this use of their data and information,” the case charges.
“The breadth of Google’s privacy violations is staggering,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit looks to represent all United States residents with a Google account who’ve used the internet on or after Google began using real-time bidding “in a manner that disclosed Account Holders’ personal information.”
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