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Google sued for £3.2bn for tracking UK iPhone browsing

Computer Weekly Online - Warwick Ashford, Security Editor

A group action lawsuit in the high court is seeking up to £3.2bn for claims that Google bypassed privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser to track UK iPhone browsing activity.

The legal action on behalf of 4.4 million UK iPhone users is led by former Which? consumer group director Richard Lloyd, and is believed to be the first mass legal action of its kind in the UK.

Speaking when the class action was announced in November 2017, Lloyd said: “Through this action, we will send a strong message to Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley that we are not afraid to fight back if our laws are broken.

“In all my years speaking up for consumers, I have rarely seen such a massive abuse of trust where so many people have no way to seek redress on their own,” he added.

Google is accused of unlawfully collecting personal information for profiling purposes for advertising by bypassing the default privacy settings that block user tracking on the iPhone between August 2011 and February 2012, which contravenes data protection laws by taking personal information without consent.

Lawyers for the group calling itself Google You Owe Us told the court that information collected by Google included race, physical and mental health, political leanings, sexuality, social class, financial, shopping habits and location data, according to The Guardian.

Hugh Tomlinson QC said the data was gathered through “clandestine tracking and collation” of browsing on the iPhone, known as the “Safari Workaround” – an activity he said was exposed by a Stanford University researcher in 2012.

Google had already paid $39.5m to settle claims in the US relating to the practice. In August 2012, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Google $22.5m for monitoring Safari browser users even though they had selected a “do not track” privacy setting.

Google was also forced to pay a separate $17m fine levied by attorneys general in 10 US states over its unauthorised placement of cookies on computers using Apple Safari web browsers from 2011 to 2012.

The company also settled out of court with a small number of UK iPhone users. Throughout the case, which began in January 2013, Google argued that it was not subject to UK data protection laws, but in January 2014, high court judge Michael Tugendhat ruled that the UK was an “appropriate” jurisdiction for the case.

The Google You Owe Us group hopes to win at least £1bn in compensation for an estimated 4.4 million iPhone users, which equates to just over £200 each, but court filings show the group could be seeking up to £3.2bn, meaning claimants could receive up £750 each.

Google’s initial response to the legal action was that it was “without merit” and now contends that the class action is “unsuitable”, that it is impossible to identify those who may have been affected and that there is no suggestion the Safari Workaround resulted in any information being disclosed to third parties.

Anthony White QC, for Google, said the court should not permit a single person to co-opt the data protection rights of millions of individuals for the purpose of advancing a personal campaign agenda.

Tom Price, communications director for Google UK, said: “The privacy and security of our users is extremely important to us. This case relates to events that took place over six years ago and that we addressed at the time.

He reiterated that the case has “no merit” and should be dismissed. “We’ve filed evidence in support of that view and look forward to making our case in court,” he added.