A group of disgruntled Google users – led by former Which? director Richard Lloyd – has started a class action against the tech giant in the UK’s High Court over claims that it carried out “clandestine tracking and collation” of personal information from 4.4 million iPhone users in the UK.
The group, which is suing Google for up to £3.2bn, alleges that the company bypassed the privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser on iPhones between August 2011 and February 2012 in order to divide people into categories for advertisers.
At the opening of the hearing, which has been on the cards since November last year, lawyers for Google You Owe Us told the court that data collected by Google included race, physical and mental heath, political leanings, sexuality, social class, financial, shopping habits and location data.
Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Lloyd, said information was then “aggregated” and users were put into groups such as “football lovers” or “current affairs enthusiasts” for the targeting of advertising, the Guardian reports.
Tomlinson said the data was gathered through “clandestine tracking and collation” of browsing on the iPhone, known as the “Safari Workaround” – an activity he said was exposed by a PhD researcher in 2012. Tomlinson pointed out that Google has already paid out millions of dollars to settle claims in the US relating to the practice, after action taken by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2012.
Lloyd told the Guardian: “I believe that what Google did was quite simply against the law. Their actions have affected millions in England and Wales and we’ll be asking the judge to ensure they are held to account in our courts.”
The campaign group hopes to win at least £1bn in compensation for an estimated 4.4 million iPhone users. Court filings show Google You Owe Us could be seeking as much as £3.2bn, meaning claimants could receive £750 per individual if successful.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google claims the type of “representative action” is unsuitable and should not go ahead. The company’s lawyers said there is no suggestion the Safari Workaround resulted in any information being disclosed to third parties.
They also said it is not possible to identify those who may have been affected and the claim has no prospect of success.
Anthony White QC, for Google, said the purpose of Lloyd’s claim was to “pursue a campaign for accountability and retribution” against the company, rather than seek compensation for affected individuals.
He said: “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 the onus on individuals who do not wish to be associated with that campaign to take positive steps to actively disassociate themselves from it.”
The hearing is expected to last two days.
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