Google sued over privacy on behalf of 5 million iPhone users

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Google was sued by a group of U.K. consumers over claims that the company improperly collected personal data from millions of users of Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

The group, called Google You Owe Us, said in a statement Thursday that it was the first case of its kind in the U.K. against a major tech company over the alleged misuse of personal data. It says the Alphabet Inc. unit unlawfully collected people’s personal information by bypassing the iPhone’s default privacy settings.

Richard Lloyd, a consumer advocate who is leading the case, said he wanted to “send a strong message to Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley that we’re not afraid to fight back if our laws are broken.” The group said each of the 5.4 million customers could get “several hundred pounds” if the case, filed in London Wednesday, is successful.

Privacy has been a hot topic for the manufacturers of the world’s most popular devices, from Apple to Samsung Electronics Co. to Google. In 2015, Apple allowed iPhone and iPad users to start installing content blockers — software that can block ads on websites, for example — on their devices as a way of giving people more control over how their data is gathered and used.

Mountain View, California-based Google said the lawsuit isn’t new.

“We don’t believe it has any merit and we will contest it,” the company said in a statement.

The group says Google used an algorithm to trick iPhones into releasing personal data from the Safari browser in 2011 and 2012.

Lloyd said Thursday that Google’s actions were “quite simply against the law.”

“Their actions have affected millions, and we’ll be asking the courts to remedy this major breach of trust,” he said. The group says all affected consumers are already part of the claim, but can opt out if they want.

Groups are allowed to bring lawsuits representing millions of people, even if those people haven’t asked to be represented, says Paul Baker, a partner at the law firm Simmons & Simmons. But to succeed in court they have to show that those customers share the same interests, he says, which can make group legal challenges like this one more difficult.

U.S. tech giants have attracted the wrath of EU privacy watchdogs for combining user data to display targeted advertising. Facebook Inc. was given the maximum fine of 150,000 euros ($178,000) by France’s regulator for doing that, and tracking users illegally via cookies.

Google hasn’t been spared scrutiny by EU authorities. Earlier this month, the Spanish data protection commission fined Google 300,000 euros for unlawfully processing user data gathered through its Street View mapping service, and the European Commission levied a 2.4 billion-euro antitrust penalty on the search giant in June for skewing results to thwart smaller shopping search services.

Bloomberg News
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