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Judge likely to sign off on settlement with Google users with compromised Covid-19 data

The settlement comes after a class action alleged a security flaw allowed third parties to see users' private personal and medical information. 

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday signaled he is likely to sign a final settlement agreement to end a class action between Google and a group of users that alleged the web giant’s flawed Covid-19 contact tracing system violated their privacy rights.

The class action, filed in April 2021 over Google’s exposure notification system for digital “contact tracing," alleged a security flaw allowed third parties to see users' private personal and medical information. 

At the time, more than 28 million people had downloaded contact tracing apps in the United States or activated exposure notifications on their mobile devices. 

In the plaintiffs' motion for final approval, they claimed Google's flawed exposure notification system left "users’ private health information unprotected on Android device 'system logs' to which Google and third party app developers had routine access."

The motion continued: “Plaintiffs described specific data comprising personally identifiable information showing positive COVID-19 diagnoses that were logged on Android system logs and transmitted side-by-side to Google’s servers from users who participated in the EN system.”

The class also said Google knew of the issue in February 2021 but did not inform the public or adequately address the alleged security flaws.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins preliminarily approved the settlement agreement on June 30 of this year after a June 22 hearing. That agreement currently calls for awarding the plaintiffs’ attorneys $1.9 million with $56,457 in expenses and $2,500 each in service payments for the plaintiffs. No class member objected to the agreement, which was discussed again in federal court Tuesday. 

As part of the deal, Google says it will fix any medical privacy intrusions, implement a process to locate and eliminate any data it may have wrongfully collected and permanently maintain measures like software code changes to improve privacy for contract tracing app users. Google also said it stopped the information logging practices complained about by the class and "found no misuse" of any data that plaintiffs were concerned about in a review of the system.

Douglas Cuthbertson, lead attorney for the class, said in court Tuesday that the case took significant technical expertise directed toward understanding “arcane details.”

“We are not aware of any case that has been brought on these claims and these kinds of technical issues around system laws,” Cuthbertson said. “That is really where a lot of the time was spent and why we think it’s reasonable. We really believe we short-circuited a tremendous amount of time in discovery.”

He also said the case was unprecedented for a class action settlement with a big tech company.

“When we filed this case in April, we were really alone in doing this,” Cuthbertson said. “We were taking a significant risk.”

Judge Cousins thanked both sides for settling the case promptly and professionally “without unnecessary litigation.”
He said he would further consider the attorneys’ fees total request and should release his final decision on the total soon.

Google’s lead attorney Ben Hur confirmed in court that the tech giant did not file any opposition to the agreement. He did not respond to a request for comment about the agreement outcome before publication.

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