Chrome’s Incognito mode has so little incognito that even Google takes it as a joke

A lawsuit against Alphabet for collecting user data while browsing incognito mode reveals internal emails in which employees comment on this feature

One of the legal battles that Google currently maintains takes place in a California court in which a lawsuit is being settled against the company for violating privacy laws by “intercepting, tracking and collecting communications” when using Chrome’s Incognito mode . . The lawsuit, which began in 2020, has returned to the fore this week after Bloomberg accessed some of the company’s internal emails that are part of the process and in which Google employees discuss and even mock privacy. which offers Incognito mode .

On January 28, 2021, Data Privacy Day, Lorraine Twohill, Google’s chief marketing officer, emailed the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, about private browsing in Chrome: “ Let’s make incognito mode truly private. . We’re limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not really private , so it requires really confusing coverage language that’s almost more damaging,” Twohill said.

Seven months earlier, in June 2020, the lawsuit had been filed for invading users’ privacy by tracking their Internet activity while using Incognito mode. At the time, the company was required to pay compensation of $5,000 per affected user , potentially millions, CNET reported, and a global amount of at least $5 billion. According to the lawsuit, Google collects information from its users in Incognito mode through services such as Google Analitycs, Google Ad Manager and other applications and plug-ins used by millions of websites for traffic measurement and advertising management, among others. functions. More than two years later, the requirement has been lowered to between $100 and $1,000 per user.affected since 2016.

Google’s internal conversations about Incognito mode

Joe Castaneda, a Google spokesman, told Bloomberg that “privacy controls have long been built into our services, and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas to improve them .”

However, from emails from Google employees discussing the matter, they don’t seem to be getting too much attention. In 2018, in a chat between Google engineers, one of them proposed, after sharing research that claimed users misunderstood what private browsing mode does, that ” we need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using the spy icon. ” . In the same conversation, another engineer linked to a website with the character “Incognito Guy” who made an appearance in an episode of The Simpsons and pointed out that “regardless of the name, the Incognito icon should always have been ‘incognito guy’ , which also accurately conveys the level of privacy it provides.”

A Google Chrome product manager submitted a proposal to change the message on the incognito mode home page “You can now browse privately without other users of this device seeing your activity” to “ You are NOT protected from Google ” . His superiors rejected the proposal.

In a Google presentation on a 2020 Incognito user experience survey, one of the slides said that “unless it is clearly disclosed that your activity may be trackable and receiving targeted ads or suggestions based on private mode, can erode trust .”

Castaneda assures that “incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience, and we have been clear about how it works and what it does , while the plaintiffs in this case have deliberately misrepresented our statements.”

Is Google clear with what Incognito mode does?

The answer is not too much. Google knows perfectly well that the vast majority of users decide to use Incognito mode based on the functionality that they infer from the name and the icon that represents it and that in this case are easily misinterpreted . It is true that when private browsing is opened, the window shows a series of explanations about its operation and a link to More information.

This window indicates that the main use of the Incognito mode is to navigate “without the other users of this device seeing your activity” and also that “it is possible” that the user’s activity is visible on the websites that are visited, the company or educational center of the user and its Internet service provider. But that “ it is possible ”, although it fits the literal because perhaps not 100% of the sites do it, in practice it means that it is exposed in a similar way as it is in standard navigation .

Going to the More information page , Google explains what this navigation mode does and does not do . In the first section, it must be noted that the activity data is not saved on the device but is stored in the Google account if it is accessed . Cookies are discarded at the end of the session and “when you browse in incognito mode, Chrome does not tell websites, including Google.”

More clarifying is what it doesn’t do. It does not prevent a website from identifying the user and tracking their activity. It does not prevent the user’s location and activity from being visible to the user’s websites, educational institution or employer as well as their Internet service provider. And it doesn’t prevent websites from displaying ads based on user activity during and for the duration of the incognito session, “as long as you’re not signed in to your account.”

So between the “it’s possible” and “as long as you’re not signed in to your account”, privacy is reduced to little more than the next user on the device not being able to see that activity. But the other thousands of eyes that follow her on the Internet remain so that “incognito” looks a little more like the definition given by the dictionary .

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