At least four class actions claim the new policy, which went into effect this month, is illegal under federal wiretapping law.
Google’s corporate slogan is “Don’t be Evil.”
Google has long maintained a deep trove of information about its users.
Under its old policy, information collected about a consumer through one Google product was segregated from information gleaned from another Google product, plaintiffs say in the class actions.
But they say that all changed March 1, when Google ushered in its new era of digital surveillance: the Era of Commingling.
Under the new policy, data gathered about a consumer through one Google product will be commingled with data collected about that consumer through other Google products, plaintiffs say.
“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products.”
Federal class actions filed last week in Philadelphia, Newark, Manhattan and San Jose claim Google’s new policy flies in the face of the company’s prior representations about how consumer data would be used.
Gone are the days when disparate stashes of user data from the various Google products remained separate “pieces to an impossible puzzle,” according to the Philadelphia class action.
“Google’s increased optimization comes at a significant cost to privacy; consumers’ rights; and consumers’ wallets,” lead plaintiff Ryan Hoey says in the Philadelphia class action. “What a consumer may discuss with friends on Gmail, may be different than that which he or she would search on a computer at work.
“By commingling data (including searches, locations, and email contacts), and tying it to a specific Gmail account or Google+ account (and therefore a specific consumer), the consumer’s personal information is no longer tied to the account; it is tied to an overarching profile in that person’s name, that is regularly appended through use of or interaction with Google products. That person no longer remains anonymous where he or she intended to remain anonymous. The various portions of each person’s life are no longer separate and given the expectation of privacy associated with each of them; they are no longer pieces to an impossible puzzle; they are pieces that can be, and as of March 1, 2012 have been, linked to create a clear picture of that consumer.
“She also stated that she hopes Google will reach a point where it provides only advertisements that consumers ‘want to see.’ She did not mention the windfall of profits Google will achieve by using the consumer’s personal information to deliver such targeted advertising, without the consumer’s consent.”
Hoey claims that users’ “expectation[s] of privacy” vary from product to product. And because data about a user’s online activity is now linked across platforms, information shared with a close circle of friends on Google’s social network, Google+, can be disclosed on Google search results.
“For example, if a consumer conducts a Google search for restaurants in Munich, the search results will not only provide answers from the Web, but will provide information from the consumer’s – as well as the consumer’s friends and contact’s – Google accounts (Gmail, Google+, etc.). The result: the consumer will get Web results, but will also get personal search results that show posts, blogs, or photos that not only the consumer, but that the consumer and his or her friends and contacts, have shared across all other Google products, such as Google+,” Hoey says.
Google has cross-indexed information between certain products before, and the approach “was particularly harmful to clients of mental health professionals, attorneys, and finance professionals, as well as to the professionals themselves, who must promise confidentiality,” Hoey says.
He claims that the practice raised serious privacy concerns and resulted in an October 2011 Consent Order between Google and the Federal Trade Commission.
Hoey says the sweeping expansion of Google’s surveillance power has been executed without authorization from Google users, in an effort to increase ad revenue.
“(C)ontrary to the representations in Google’s prior privacies pursuant to which plaintiff and the class acquired their Google accounts, Google is now taking the personal information the consumer used to set up a specific account for a specific Google product, and combining that information with information submitted by that consumer on every Google product the consumer uses without the consumer’s consent,” the complaint states.
“Not only has Google done so without each consumer’s consent; it has not provided consumers with an easy, efficient, or effective way to opt-out of Google’s co-mingling and cross-pollination of data. While Google has made it very easy to universally merge data across product lines, it has not made it easy to opt out – consumers must manage their privacy settings for each Google product they use; a universal opt-out function is not available. Google product users have the ability to minimize the accessibility of some of their data, but there are significant obstacles to doing so, and complete privacy cannot be accomplished.
“Indeed, Google has misrepresented that the impetus for the consolidation, stating that it is to provide ‘a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.’ However, the primary reason for Google’s privacy change is to use consumers’ personal information to grow profits by achieving a larger market share of advertising revenue. Thus, Google has no incentive to provide an effective opt-out function, or, in the alternative to provide an opt-in function.
“Further, studies show that an overwhelming number of consumers do not want to receive advertisements targeted based on behavior, or search results based on their prior activity.”
The class actions claim Google is violating the Federal Wiretap Act, the Stored Electronic Communications Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and state laws.
Plaintiffs in all the four class actions cited in this article are represented by Mark Gardy, with Gardy & Notis, of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and by James Sabella, with Grant Eisenhofer in New York City.
Also representing the California plaintiffs are Martin Bakst of Encino, Calif.