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Google taken to court in UK over claims of improper data collection

Image credit: reuters

An advocacy group is taking legal action against Google on behalf of UK iPhone users, arguing that the company illegally collected data from their iPhones while they used Apple’s Safari browser.

According to a consumer group, Google You Owe Us, the search giant has been illegally collecting personal details from iPhone users by exploiting default privacy settings found on Apple iPhones, which block third-party tracking on the Safari browser via cookies. The group has said that in 2011 and 2012 Google used an algorithm to get around this restriction, track iPhone users’ browsing and collect personal data. This is known as the “Safari Workaround”.

The Guardian reports that at the opening of two-day hearing in London, representatives for the group stated that data collected includes not just shopping preferences and location data, but also race, health (including mental health), political views, sexual orientation, class and financial situation.

This data was used to group users into categories such as “football lovers” which could be subjected to more targeted advertising.

Google You Owe Us, which is led by Richard Lloyd, former director at Which?, is pushing for the case to be treated like a US class action lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs represent a far larger group of people (in this case, iPhone users). There is no widely-used equivalent to this type of legal action in the UK.

Court documents state that Google You Owe Us represents 4.4m Britons, each of which could receive £750 in compensation if the case is successful. Court documents suggest that Google could be set to lose as much as £3.2bn if they lose the case.

According to Hugh Tomlinson QC, who represents Lloyd, Google has already been forced to pay out $39.5m (£29.4m) in the US due to complaints regarding the Safari Workaround.  In 2012, the US Federal Trade Commission fined the search giant $22.5m (£16.7m) for monitoring Safari users, even after they had chosen a privacy setting which disallows tracking.

Google has denied the allegations, argued that the Safari Workaround was not used to collect data for sharing with third parties, and that it is not possible to state with certainty who may have been affected by the algorithm. The company has also argued that the legal dispute should not take place in London.

“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 and should not allow them to place he onus on individuals who do not wish to be associated with that campaign to take positive steps to actively disassociate themselves from it,” stated Anthony White QC, who is representing Google.

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