Case against Google over tracking iPhone users to go ahead

3 Oct 2019

Image: PA

Following a ruling from the UK Court of Appeal, a case brought against Google alleging that it collected sensitive personal data of millions of iPhone users without consent will go ahead.

A mass legal action against Google over claims it collected sensitive personal data from 4.4m iPhone users can go ahead following a UK Court of Appeal ruling. Senior judges concluded on Wednesday (2 October) that Richard Lloyd, former executive director of consumer group Which? and current board member of the Financial Conduct Authority, can bring legal proceedings on the US-based tech giant, overturning a previous court decision.

Speaking after the ruling, Lloyd said: “Today’s judgment sends a very clear message to Google and other large tech companies – you are not above the law.

“Google can be held to account in this country for misusing people’s personal data, and groups of consumers can together ask the courts for redress when firms profit unlawfully from ‘repeated and widespread’ violations of our data protection rights. We will take this fight against Google all the way.”

The group Lloyd leads, entitled Google You Owe Us, hopes to win at least £1bn in compensation for UK-based iPhone users.

The claim alleges that Google bypassed privacy settings on Apple iPhone handsets between August 2011 and February 2012, and used data to divide people into categories for advertisers.

Lloyd claims “browser-generated information” collected by Google included racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental heath, political affiliations or opinions, sexuality and sexual interests, and social class.

It is also said that information about an individual’s financial situation, shopping habits and their geographical location were obtained and that the data was then aggregated and users were put into groups such as “football lovers” or “current affairs enthusiasts”.

These were then offered to subscribing advertisers to choose from when deciding who to direct their marketing to, according to the claim.

‘Clandestine tracking’

Lloyd’s lawyers told a UK High Court hearing in May 2018 that the data was gathered through “clandestine tracking and collation” of information relating to internet usage on iPhone users’ Safari browser – known as the ‘Safari workaround’. Google previously settled with the US Federal Trade Commission for $22.5m over the same feature.

Lloyd’s application to serve notice of the legal action on Google outside the jurisdiction of England and Wales was refused by the High Court in October 2018. However, following a challenge by Lloyd, three judges at the Court of Appeal concluded the legal action can go ahead.

In a summary of the court’s ruling, Chancellor of the High Court Geoffrey Vos said: “The claimants that Lloyd seeks to represent will all have had their browser generated information (BGI) – something of value – taken by Google without their consent in the same circumstances during the same period.

“The represented class were all victims of the same alleged wrong, and had all sustained the same loss, namely loss of control over their BGI.”

Google had contended that the type of “representative action” being brought against it by Lloyd is unsuitable and should not go ahead. Google said it will seek permission to appeal at the Supreme Court.

A spokesperson for the tech firm added: “Protecting the privacy and security of our users has always been our number one priority.

“This case relates to events that took place nearly a decade ago and that we addressed at the time. We believe it has no merit and should be dismissed.”

– PA Media, with additional reporting by Eva Short