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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
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Google can’t escape class action claiming it collected, read private tax information

Google users from across the country showed they have a reasonable expectation to their tax information being kept private.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Google must face class action claims that it collected and recorded private information from people who used tax filing websites such as H&R Block in violation of state and federal wiretapping laws. 

Google users from across the country showed they have a reasonable expectation to their tax information being kept private, and that Google Analytics breached that expectation when it intercepted their data, U.S. District Judge P. Casey Pitts said in a 14-page ruling Monday dismissing Google’s attempt to toss the claims.

The tech giant isn't just the vendor of the tool used to record users’ interactions on websites; it can also read or use the data that's collected, the Google user plaintiffs said in their July 2023 complaint. They also say Google didn't enforce against the tax prep sites its own policies that prohibit customers from sending personally identifiable information to Google.

Some courts have ruled that tracking tools like Google Analytics are akin to tape recorders handed to website operators to collect user data, Judge Pitts wrote — but a Northern District of California judge recently concluded that for an online tracking service to operate like a tape recorder, the service must be entirely incapable of using the data it collects and stores for any other purpose,.

“If Google Analytics is like a tape recorder, the question is who is ‘holding’ it,” wrote Pitts, a Biden appointee. “Did Google simply build a tape recorder and pass it off to the tax sites to use for their own purposes? Or did Google not only create the tape recorder but also use it to make a recording?”

If users’ data is “aggregated” and presented to Google Analytics customers in an online “account dashboard,” that suggest that Google processes and analyzes the data it collects, the judge reasoned.

The judge also shut down Google's argument that there is a presumption under California law that online communications are not confidential, because the Google users didn't claim that Google had intercepted their communications with another person. Rather, they expected their tax information to remain confidential because sharing tax return information without consent is a crime. 

The judge also denied Google’s attempt to avoid the claim it violated the federal Wire Tap Act on several grounds. Pitts noted the plaintiffs’ claim that Google Analytics’ code is invisible to users, and by default collects detailed information about them.

However, Pitts added that he cannot presume that every website owner who installed Google Analytics understood exactly what data was going to Google and how Google might use it.

The judge denied Google’s motions to dismiss the claim that it knew the potential criminal use of its tools, and claims under the Florida Security of Communications Act, the Texas Wiretap Statute and Illinois Eavesdropping Statute. Pitts said the plaintiffs’ claim that the Google Analytics tracking code is “invisible” and helped to “quietly transmit" sensitive financial information to Google is enough to proceed under those statutes.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The parties return to court for a hearing on June 27.

Google, Meta and H&R Block already face separate claims that they coordinated a plan to scrape and use taxpayer data to their advantage. Users in that suit claim that H&R Block used their income and financial records to train Google and Meta’s algorithms and create targeted ads.  

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Categories / Business, Law, Securities, Technology

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