Google. Picture: REUTERS
Google. Picture: REUTERS

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

The group, called Google You Owe Us, said in a statement on Thursday that it was the first case of its kind in the UK against a major tech company, over the alleged misuse of personal data. It says the Alphabet 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 on Wednesday, is successful.

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

Google said the lawsuit was not 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 on 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 said all affected consumers were already part of the claim, but could opt out if they wanted.

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

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

Google has not been spared scrutiny by EU authorities. Earlier in November, the Spanish data protection commission fined Google €300,000 for unlawfully processing user data gathered through its Street View mapping service, and the European Commission levied a €2.4bn antitrust penalty on the search giant in June for skewing results to thwart smaller shopping search services.

Bloomberg

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