Google is being sued and investigated by parties across the globe, for allegations ranging from improper data mining to political censorship.
A class action lawsuit is being brought against Google in the U.K. after the company stole information about iPhone users’ internet browsing habits. A campaign called “Google You Owe Us” has served legal papers to the internet giant, seeking financial compensation for around 5.4 million consumers in a claim that could force Google to pay out £2.7 billion (US$3.6 billion) for violating data protection laws. The case is expected to be heard in England’s High Court in early 2018.
The company is accused of harvesting the personal information of millions of iPhone users by circumventing the default privacy settings on the iPhone Safari web browser. In a move known as the “Safari Workaround,” Google used algorithms that tricked the browser into sending information about users’ online activity, between June 2011 and February 2012. The information gathered was allegedly sold to advertisers, enabling them to develop targeted ads.
Google has previously been sued over the breach, once in the UK and several times in the US. The US cases saw the Federal Trade Commission voting to fine the software giant a record-breaking $22.5m civil penalty, plus separate court settlements of another $17million and $5.5 million. So far, Google has been able to evade any admission of liability, something the new lawsuit hopes to rectify. The Google You Owe Us campaign is being spearheaded by longtime consumer rights professional Richard Lloyd who said:
“I believe that what Google did was quite simply against the law. Their actions have affected millions, and we’ll be asking the courts to remedy this major breach of trust. Through this action, we will send a strong message to Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley that we’re not afraid to fight back if our laws are broken.
In all my years speaking up for consumers, I’ve rarely seen such a massive abuse of trust where so many people have no way to seek redress on their own. That’s why I’ve taken on one of the biggest fights of my life in representing this legal action, which is the first of its kind in the UK against a major tech company for misusing our valuable personal data.”
ONE INDISCRETION AMONG MANY
A crime committed around five years ago may seem like old news, but the Safari Workaround is only one example of Google’s continued pattern of spying on and manipulating its users. It has recently been revealed that the software provider’s Voice Assistant has been recording Android phone users’ conversations, without their knowledge or permission.
The program, which is supposed to activate only upon hearing the command “OK Google,” or “Hey Google,” has in fact been turning on in response to background noise, such as users’ conversations with friends, snippets of which are being recorded and stored on the company’s cloud service. Voice Assistant users submitted their recording transcripts to the Daily Mail, with the most concerning example registering somebody’s house entry code, given during a presumably private conversation: “If you ever get booked down to my house for some reason the key safe for the back door is 0783.” These audio recordings are used by Google to supposedly improve their voice recognition software.
The launch of the Google Home device earlier this year produced a similar issue when it was found that the device was permanently recording its users’ home activity. The voice controlled, Wi-Fi connected speaker was again intended to activate after detecting the phrase “OK Google,” but tester Artem Russakovskii, who was given a Google Home Mini to review, discovered that “It was waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google.” He added, “All of this was done quietly, with only the four lights on the unit I wasn’t looking at flashing on and then off.”
While Google conceded that a “small number” of Google Home Minis had been affected by the issue, and have apparently rectified the issue, the company has an established pattern of unethical, spying behavior, directed at its customers. It repeatedly seeks to deny or minimize any claims of privacy invasion as it casts an ever wider net of surveillance.
The new Google Clips camera, a personal device which uses artificial intelligence to choose when to take photos, represents a whole new disturbing vista of potential privacy invasions, while in the meantime a 2017 project began tracking Android users locations, even when location services were switched off.
MANIPULATION AND CENSORSHIP
Not only has Google established a pattern of surveilling its users, but it also seeks to manipulate us into following its own corporate agenda. Last year, the European Union handed the company a record multi-billion dollar fine for misusing its market dominance in order to operate a monopoly on product sales by manipulating users’ search results.
Australia has just launched an enquiry into the influence that companies including Facebook and Google hold over the nation’s media content. The U.S. 2016 election run-up saw a range of accusations against Google, claiming that the company was manipulating online data in favor of a Clinton victory, an allegation which has now resulted in a lawsuit as non-profit website PragerU claims it was censored due to its conservative politics.
With so much legal action being taken against the company, it’s a wonder that we are allowing Google to expand ever more into our lives and minds.