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  • Kyle Chua

Lawsuit Alleges Google’s Incognito Mode Is Anything but Incognito

Beware, Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode might not be as private as you think it is, if a new lawsuit is to be believed.

Credit: Shutterstock via Tech Wire Asia

A new class-action lawsuit, which has since received the greenlight to move forward by a U.S. judge, alleges Google is deceiving users about what data it collects when browsing in Chrome’s Incognito Mode, as MTL Blog reports. It argues the private browsing function gives users a false sense of security that their browsing data is not being tracked, when the opposite is supposedly true.


In many cases, the search engine giant is said to have tracked users even after the function was disabled, and it used the data it collected to boost profits. The lawyers behind the suit have put forward internal emails as part of the court process, which they claim show how the company’s executives have known about the issue for years but chose to remain complicit about it.


For instance, Google’s Chief Marketing Officer Lorraine Twohill in 2019 sent CEO Sundar Pichai an email saying Incognito Mode was “not truly private” and she didn't want her team using “fuzzy, hedging language” to falsely promote the function. Developers in the company privately joked about Incognito's lack of privacy, with one even renaming it to "Guy Incognito", a reference to a gag from The Simpsons in which Homer's disguise, consisting of a top hat and moustache, prove futile.


An internal presentation was also released that said Google users “overestimate the protections that Incognito provides”.

Credit: Google

“Incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience, and we've been clear about how it works and what it does, whereas the plaintiffs in this case have purposely mischaracterized our statements,” said Google spokesman José Castañeda about the case. Google could be forced to pay billions of dollars if it loses the suit. That amount could reportedly be distributed among the millions represented, with each person possibly receiving a payoff between US$100 to US$1,000.


Privacy experts believe it's best to assume that anything you do online can be tracked in some form or another. All Google's Incognito Mode does is open a new window with no cookies or history and then deletes the browsing data that you accumulate after the window is closed. While that prevents other people who'll be using your computer from seeing what you've been looking at online, Google and your service provider could still have access to your data.


"Google or any other site can collect and store anything that you do on a private mode browser tab," Dr Mohammad Mannan, Associate Professor at Concordia University's Institute for Information Systems Engineering, told MTL Blog. "Sites now use advanced features, like browser fingerprinting, instead of cookies to connect browsing activities."


"Incognito mode must not be relied on to do anything deemed as private, and yes, these labels can be misleading to many users," he noted.

 
  • A new class-action lawsuit, which has since received the greenlight to move forward by a U.S. judge, alleges Google is deceiving users about what data it collects when browsing in Chrome’s Incognito Mode.

  • In many cases, the search engine giant is said to have tracked users even after the function was disabled, and it used the data it collected to boost profits.

  • Google could be forced to pay billions of dollars if it loses the suit.

  • That amount could reportedly be distributed among the millions represented, with each person possibly receiving a payoff between US$100 to US$1,000.






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