google sypglass

Have you ever thought it strange when you are using Google (as a search engine) looking at holidays, and then move on to look at Facebook, and a string of relevant holiday ads pop up in your newsfeed?

Does it feel like Google is spying on you?

Well, a small group of individuals supported by the campaign group known as “Safari Users Against Google’s Secret Tracking” are now bringing a landmark privacy case against Google in the English courts. The individuals in Vidal-Hall and Others v Google Inc. all claim that Google have misused their  information in breach of its obligations under the Data Protection Act (“DPA”) by tracking and collating information relating to their internet use on Apple’s Safari browser without their knowledge or consent.

By doing this, Google has been able to obtain personal and potentially sensitive data about their surfing habits. Such habits could reveal not only their personalities, their immediate plans and ambitions, where they live and how old they are but also their secret wishes and ambitions, political and religious beliefs, social class, racial origin, physical and mental health, sexual interests and financial situation. (Google uses such information to identify what we might want to buy and target (or sell the opportunity to its clients to target) suitable adverts at us.)

The claimants’ case is that the targeted ads on their screen could have disclosed sensitive information about them to people looking at their screens and this caused them to suffer distress and anxiety. A High Court judge has ruled that each claimant has a sufficiently arguable case that their Article 8 rights to privacy were engaged and that they did suffer sufficiently serious damage, notwithstanding the fact that this damage was not financial.

Also significant is the Judge’s suggestion that the meaning of personal data under the DPA could be extended to include information that does not expressly identify the user.

Google had refused to accept service of the claim in the UK, saying that the English courts had no jurisdiction and that any claims should be brought in California. The Judge rejected this argument as the claimants were based in England “for whom bringing proceedings in the USA would likely to be very burdensome.” Google have said that they will appeal the decision.

Google has already faced regulatory sanctions for this in the USA. The Company agreed to pay out $22.5 million in 2012 and $17 million in 2013 by way of settlements.

This case will need to be watched closely over the coming months by anyone with an interest or concern regarding online privacy issues and by those who advertise online. The clear statement by the Judge that the misuse of private information is a tort (i.e. a wrong), is potentially an important one as this is a relatively new and developing area of English law. If his views are followed by the trial judge then the possible implications for UK privacy and data protection law could be significant.

If you are at all concerned about data used in this way, then please feel free to get in contact in order that we can consider the facts of your case and advise accordingly.