Google Accused of “Wiretapping” Tax Websites

Google is under the spotlight as it confronts allegations of wiretapping tax preparation sites to extract confidential data from uninformed users.

This recent development spotlights persistent apprehensions surrounding data privacy and the means employed by corporations to accumulate user data.

Demystifying Digital ‘Wiretapping’

When we talk about ‘wiretapping’ in this scenario, we’re discussing Google Analytics‘ code found on tax websites like H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer. Installed by these tax companies, this code aimed to study visitor behaviour and gain insights into user demographics.

The official complaint spells it out: “What made this wiretapping possible is Google Analytics’ tracking pixel, which is embedded in the JavaScript of online tax preparation websites.”

So, when users landed on these pages, Google got a ping, letting it capture details of the visit.

Taking it further, the lawsuit claimed, “These tax preparation companies sent private tax return information to Google through Google Analytics and its embedded tracking pixel.”

Google, it seems, got a wealth of user data from these pixels, which it used to refine its advertising tools.

The Nitty-Gritty of the Legal Issue

On August 17, 2023, a class action lawsuit was lodged against Google, bearing the reference Case 5:23-cv-04191-SVK.

At the heart of this complaint is the belief that Google, without permission, tapped into private chats. One of the key claims is Google’s alleged access to “private electronic communications between Plaintiff Townsend and the Texas Subclass members and their online tax-filing service providers.”

The objective, plaintiffs argue, was clear: gather tax return details to beef up their databases for advertisers.

The lawsuit brings several laws into the mix, suggesting Google might have overstepped its boundaries. One key law in this mix is the “Texas Criminal Wiretap Act”.

It’s pretty clear cut; you can’t intercept private electronic chats unless everyone involved agrees. And it’s especially not okay if there’s a hidden, possibly illegal, agenda. The document doesn’t mince words, stating:

“Google intercepted Plaintiff Townsend and the Texas Subclass members’ communications with their tax-filing services for the purpose of committing an unlawful act.”

Google also faces questions over other privacy regulations, with the lawsuit suggesting infringements on rights protected by both the California Constitution and other state rules. This complaint is firm, noting that Google stepped on “legally protected privacy interests.”

The list is long, covering multiple US states’ Wiretap Acts and even the Fourth Amendment’s personal computer privacy clause.

Plaintiffs have a clear ask. They want a green light for a class action lawsuit, clarity on Google’s alleged rule-breaking, damages, and coverage for all their legal costs. They’ve wrapped up their demands with a clear message: they want their day in court with a jury.


Is it Legal or Not?

The big question is about the legality of Google’s data gathering. American rules are clear: tax return details are top secret.

You can’t share them without the taxpayer’s nod. So, a big part of this case will be finding out if Google Analytics was really collecting these specific details.

There’s also a side note about Google Analytics’ ability to pull together a whopping 200 metrics. Google assures us this doesn’t point back to individual users.

But research from the likes of Stanford and Princeton suggests that Google’s tools might be more revealing than we think, potentially pointing right back to individual users via their browsing habits.

Past Concerns Echo in Today’s World

This isn’t a new concern. Tools like these, once termed “web bugs” or “web beacons”, have been a point of contention for over two decades.

The real uproar started in 2018 with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, admitted in a 2018 congressional hearing that a swarm of Facebook tools were active and constantly sending data back to the mothership.

Fast-forward to today, and these concerns haven’t faded. If anything, they’re sharper. Recent accusations saw Google under fire for supposedly grabbing health data from Planned Parenthood websites.

A 2023 BakerHostetler report mentioned, “since August 2022, more than 50 lawsuits have been filed against hospital systems” about similar issues.

This Google case, then, is just the tip of the iceberg. It flags up a bigger issue about how tech giants handle and benefit from user data.

Eyes will be on the outcome – it might well shape how similar cases play out in the future.