Monday, December 5, 2022

Lawsuit claims Google knew its ‘Incognito mode’ doesn’t protect users’ privacy

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Hi all, Gerrit De Vynck here. I’m a tech reporter for The Post out in San Francisco. You can follow me on Twitter at @GerritD

Lawsuit challenges Google’s claim that its ‘Incognito mode’ protects users’ privacy

It can be hard to keep track of all the lawsuits against Google.

The Department of Justice filed one in 2020 and might have another one coming soon. Texas has at least two. Arizona recently settled theirs with the search giant for $85 million. And Washington state and D.C. have lawsuits, too.

It’s not just governments. Video game maker Epic and dating app owner Match Group are suing Google, alleging anticompetitive behavior in how it runs its app store. The Republican National Committee is suing Google for sending politicians’ emails straight to spam folders. 

Here’s another one to add to the list. Right now, a California judge is deliberating on whether to allow a class-action lawsuit representing millions of Google users to go forward. A group of consumers is alleging the company misled people about what data it collected when they were using private browsing modes on both Google’s Chrome web browser and browsers built by other companies such as Apple and Mozilla.

Because essentially all internet users in the United States use a browser to surf the web, the potential fines should Google be found liable could be in the billions of dollars.

The lawyers spearheading the lawsuit have already amassed a trove of internal Google emails they say show how the company’s executives have known for years that what the company calls “Incognito mode” is anything but incognito. Private browsing modes usually block tracking cookies — little bits of code that follow people around the internet logging their activity.

But Google still logged information on people using private mode whenever they visited websites that had installed hugely popular Google software used for serving ads or measuring traffic, the lawsuit alleges.

The emails released as part of the court process show how Google employees repeatedly raised concerns about private mode with their superiors. One 2019 email from Google’s Chief Marketing Officer Lorraine Twohill to CEO Sundar Pichai said Incognito was “not truly private.” An internal presentation said Google users “overestimate the protections that Incognito provides.” Another one proposed getting rid of the word “private” from the Incognito mode start screen completely. 

Google says the accusations are overblown and that it has always been clear with its users about the limits of Incognito mode and private browsing. 

“Privacy controls have long been built into our services and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas to improve them,” Google spokesman José Castañeda said. “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.” 

If the judge gives the green light, lawyers will continue their fight to get tens of millions of Google users a payment of between $100 and $1,000 each. That’s a potential payoff in the billions of dollars. 

FTC singles out Drizly executive over data privacy abuses

The Federal Trade Commission’s proposed order will follow Drizly CEO Cory Rellas to his future businesses, forcing him to implement security programs at any companies he leads that collect data from at least 25,000 people, Cat Zakrzewski reports.  The punishment came after alleged security failures under Rellas’s watch that exposed around 2.5 million customers’ personal information.

It also comes after Democrats pushed for more aggressive penalties for individual executives involved in major data breaches. “There are only a handful of examples of the FTC pursuing such individual liability in past cases involving online data,” Cat writes. “In 2019, the agency reached a settlement with the operator of an online rewards website, ClixSense, that will follow [the executive] to future companies. That same year, the agency also named executives in an order it brought against a dress-up games website, which allegedly violated a law that protects children under the age of 13 online.”

Under the order, Rellas and Drizly, which is owned by Uber, will also have to destroy unnecessary data, put new data controls in place and train their employees about cybersecurity. The FTC will decide on finalizing the order after getting public comments for 30 days.

Tech groups ask Supreme Court to take up Florida social media law

The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetChoice told the Supreme Court that a Florida law that would penalize social media companies for blocking politicians’ posts violates the First Amendment rights of tech companies, according to a Monday news release. In September, Florida’s attorney general asked the Supreme Court to consider whether such a law is constitutional.

The filing comes amid a flurry of activity about social media laws at the Supreme Court. An appeals court blocked much of the Florida law in May but another appeals court upheld a similar Texas law in September.  The court has postponed that law from going into effect until the Supreme Court reviews the case.

Chinese spies accused of trying to obstruct Huawei investigation

The Justice Department said two men working on behalf of Beijing bribed a U.S. law enforcement official to share secrets about the prosecution of a major Chinese firm that people familiar with the matter said was Huawei, Devlin Barrett, Perry Stein and Ellen Nakashima report. But the official was actually a double agent working for the U.S. government who was gathering evidence against the suspects and feeding them fake documents and information.

“The U.S. Justice Department indicted Huawei Technologies in 2019, accusing the world’s largest communications equipment manufacturer and some of its executives of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and conspiring to obstruct justice related to the investigation — prompting furious condemnations from both the company and the country,” Devlin, Perry and Ellen write. “The new charges suggest that the Chinese government went to great lengths to try to defeat the U.S. case against the company, assigning alleged Chinese intelligence officers to obtain information about witnesses and evidence. Huawei has long insisted it operates independently of the Chinese government.” 

A Huawei representative didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Apple is raising the prices of its entertainment services (Protocol)

The fantasy of instant delivery is imploding (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Behind TikTok’s boom: A legion of traumatised, $10-a-day content moderators (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Meta investor urges CEO Mark Zuckerberg to slash staff and cut costs (Wall Street Journal)

Amazon union organizers call off election attempt at a California warehouse (The Verge)

Wikimedia is adding features to make editing Wikipedia more fun (The Verge)

  • Michelle Giuda is joining the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy as its director. Giuda previously worked as an executive vice president at Weber Shandwick and as an assistant secretary of state in the Trump administration.
  • FCC Commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Nathan Simington, as well as Amazon and SpaceX executives, speak at a New America event on satellite spectrum today at 11:45 a.m.
  • Alan F. Estevez, the undersecretary of commerce for industry and security, discusses new semiconductor export controls at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • Amazon senior vice president Dave Limp discusses the company’s satellite internet technology at a Washington Post Live event on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

Thats all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email



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