Incognito? Maybe Not

September 1, 2023

Introduction

Google is headed to court again, this time embroiled a class action lawsuit that alleges Google misled Chrome users into believing that their Incognito searches were safe from the company’s infamous web tracking software.

Affected parties are seeking $5B in damages.

Incognito and Private Browsers

Whichever browser you prefer to use—Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Explorer, or anything else!—there is a way to trigger a “private browsing window.” On Firefox and Safari, it’s called Private Browsing. On Chrome, it’s Incognito Mode.

Theoretically, browsing incognito should scramble your IP address and make you anonymous, essentially hiding where you’re logging in from and shielding search history from others on the network. It doesn’t save your browsing history, so nobody can see where you’ve been. It also doesn’t remember your searches or the websites you visit after you close the browser.

Sound like carte blanche? Not quite.

While private browsers make your online activities less visible to others who use the same computer, they don’t make you completely invisible. Internet service providers, websites you visit and even some advanced tracking techniques might still know what you’re up to. So while it’s a nice disguise for everyday privacy, it’s not a free pass to do whatever you want without consequence.

Chrome vs. The People

When you open Chrome Incognito, you’ll see a message like this:

See that list? Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies and other information inputted while on Incognito mode.

Now Google is being sued $5B in a class action lawsuit alleging that they’ve flouted that exact claim. Plaintiffs have accused the company of excessively tracking activity while users were on Incognito mode, far beyond what they led people to believe they could see or collect.

The mega-corporation is accused of using their various tools to track cookies, analytics, where you browse and other activity. Additionally, accusers allege that Google stores private and regular browsing in the same big cooking pot of information about you, and they serve up personalized ads and recommendations based on all the data that’s been collected. Their algorithm doesn’t differentiate between what it is or isn’t supposed to know; or what it is or isn’t supposed to sell…allegedly.

In a statement to The Verge, a Google spokesman said, “We strongly dispute these claims and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them. Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device. As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.”

The class action lawsuit estimates that this illegal tracking has stretched back as far as June 2016 and seeks over $5K in damages for each user.

Conclusion

Do you use private browsing? You might want to be careful, and double-check that it’s as secure as you think. How much of your “incognito” searches have actually been tracked, stored or even sold to third parties?

This is all still alleged as the class action lawsuit has yet to go to trial. Nevertheless, it raises concerns about the “true privacy” of your online activity and whether it’s just a matter of time until we all find our data sometime, somewhere. If our browsers can even temporarily remember the site we’re on (which they can), and the “Internet is forever” (which it is), what does that mean for our data’s privacy?

It means that it’s more important than EVER to take the necessary precautions to protect as much of your online data as possible while we wait for legislation to catch up with the real world. We can all take small steps ever day to bolster the privacy of our networks and online activity.

References

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