By Shoshana Wodinsky
Newly unsealed court records reveal executives candidly talking discussing about subverting user consent in their products.
Google repeatedly positions itself as a staunch supporter of privacy in the public sphere, but that posturing does not always apply behind closed doors. Google employees sometimes acknowledge that the company's data-mining practices are both invasive and opaque--so opaque that even they "don't understand and can't describe" exactly how users are being tracked, according to internal interview excerpts found in a series of newly unsealed court records.
These excerpts--all attributed to unnamed employees inside the company--became public this week in the latest leg of an ongoing lawsuit filed against the tech giant over tracking practices of its flagship browser, Google Chrome.
The class action suit, filed in California state court in Oakland, alleges the company violated promises not to collect data of those using the browser without signing into their Google accounts. The lawsuit cited Chrome's own privacy notice to users, which the company offers as a landing page for users curious about how their data is used on the platform. In 2016, the notice originally promised users that they "don't need to provide any personal information to use Chrome." In 2019, the suit explains, that wording was tweaked, with the company then promising that the Chrome browser "will not send personal information to Google" unless the person using that browser "chooses to sync" the browser with their preexisting Google account. That promise is still live on the current Chrome privacy notice.
"I don't have the faintest idea what Google has on me," mused one employee during a slate of discussions held with the company's Privacy and Data Protection Office (PDPO) starting in 2020.
"The fact what we can't explain what we have [...] on users is probably our biggest challenge," the unnamed employee added.
According to the most recently unsealed documents, Google's PDPO was an internal team that was created to " solely focus on" the company's data protection matters. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who are Google Chrome users, learned about the team after deposing Sam Heft-Luthy, a Google project manager and PDPO member who's primarily responsible for ensuring data protection compliance for newly designed products.
The discussions with unnamed Google employees that were unsealed in California court were conducted as part of a "cross-function" study performed by four members of the PDPO in 2020. In total, 11 employees from across the company were listed as "contributors" to the study, according to the newly released court records.
All of these "contributors," according to the excerpts, appeared to agree that their employer didn't see privacy as a priority.
"Users have a right to know," one interviewee said. "The reasons we provide are so high level and abstract that they don't make sense to people." Other interviewees made similar comments. "Consent is no longer consent if you think of ads as a product," another employee said.
And at Google, ads aren't only a product, but a product that brings in the majority of its parent company's staggering revenue. For its 2021 fiscal year, Alphabet (GOOGL) reported generating $209.5 billion of revenue off its ad products, up from about $147 billion in the fiscal year prior. About 82% of Alphabets' total revenue last year came from Google's ads.
When asked for comment about the case, a Google spokesperson told Marketwatch that "privacy controls have long been built into our services and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas to improve them." The spokesperson added that the statements that have been unsealed in the lawsuit were "purposely mischaracterized."
But one former worker who recently left the company disagreed.
"I am more than willing to believe this is how executives talked to each other," the ex-employee who worked with the company's ad products told Marketwatch under the condition of anonymity.
"Even people I was organizationally close to, knew well, and respected, were finding ways to justify that stuff to themselves," and often pointed out that the company's privacy teams had been reorganized "many times" during their tenure with the company.
"The individual contributors [on Google's privacy teams] are always idealistic people," the former Google employee added. "Some of these quotes [from the case] look to me like things that idealistic people would say; others look like things management would say when the idealistic people aren't around."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 18, 2022 08:49 ET (13:49 GMT)
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