Google’s legal defense in a privacy lawsuit has taken a major hit thanks to emails proving the company knowingly tracked user data.
Google is being sued over claims it continues to track Chrome browser users even when Incognito mode is enabled. Incognito mode is supposed to provide users with a measure of privacy and prevent Google from tracking their browsing when activated. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status, saying Google knowingly continued tracking users when Incognito was active.
Plaintiffs appear to have a fairly strong case based on internal emails among Google executives, according to Bloomberg.
“Make Incognito Mode truly private,” marketing chief Lorraine Twohill wrote in an email to CEO Sundar Pichai, highlighting ways the company could gain user trust. “We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging.”
As if acknowledging Incognito mode is ineffective wasn’t bad enough, the browser’s lack of privacy was even the topic of jokes within the company.
“We need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon,” one engineer wrote in a 2018 chat with other Google Chrome engineers.
In response, another engineer posted a link to a “Simpsons” cartoon character called “Guy Incognito.”
“Regardless of the name, the Incognito icon should have always been” Guy Incognito, the employee wrote. “Which also accurately conveys the level of privacy it provides.”
Google, for its part, argues that users knew what they signed up for.
“Incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience, and we’ve been clear about how it works and what it does, whereas the plaintiffs in this case have purposely mischaracterized our statements,” spokesman Jose Castaneda said in an email to Bloomberg.
Unfortunately for the company, its own internal communication paints a picture that it knew users were confused about how Incognito mode did and did not work.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine a judge not approving the class action status and even harder to imagine Google prevailing in court.