Google Admits That Chrome’s Incognito Mode Doesn’t Truly Camouflage Users Data

Google managed to track Chrome’s Incognito Mode users without their knowledge through a tactful technicality, but with a recent update to the tracking warning can Google lead the charge on privacy? 

There’s nothing quite like a $5 billion settlement to make you update your privacy and tracking warning — a unique experience that Google is dealing with while trying to settle a class action lawsuit. 

The Big G is updating the warning on Chrome’s Incognito Mode to inform consumers that they and other websites can still track digital users even in private mode. That’s an oxymoron if I have ever heard one. 

They added the warning on Chrome Canary, a nightly build for developers. It directly addresses one of the major complaints in the class action lawsuit, which accused Google of not making it explicitly clear that Google collects data from users in private mode. 

There is plenty of scrutiny around Big Tech’s privacy tactics, especially Google, which seems to draw lawsuits often. But they are also a champion of privacy ethics, especially with the release of its Tracking Protection feature. Is there a bit of cognitive dissonance at play? Can we trust a company to lead the charge on privacy while having their compliance skeletons in the closet? 

The History of Google’s Incognito Mode Class Action

The plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against Google in 2020. The complaint claimed that “millions” of users who had browsed the Internet in Incognito Mode since June 1, 2016, may have been affected. They allegedly used tools such as Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, website plug-ins, and smartphone apps to gather data, regardless of whether users click on Google-supported ads. At the time, Google tried to throw out the case, stating that they informed users of their tracking practices. Four years later, they’re singing a different tune. 

The plaintiffs claimed that Google violated federal wiretapping laws with this discrepancy and sought a minimum of $5 billion in compensation. The facts are that all modern browsers include a private mode. Google has always clarified that websites, school or business administrators, and ISPs can still see your browsing activity in incognito mode. They explicitly said that Chrome does not save this data. 

Although, as Brady Snyder of Android Central put it, “the fact that Chrome does not track you while in incognito mode is a master-level technicality.” Chrome, the browser, does not track users while in incognito mode. On the other hand, Google — the tech and advertising giant — will still track your browsing history, even in incognito mode.

A Masterful Technicality 

The stable version of Chrome’s Incognito mode states, “You’ve gone Incognito. Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity.” In the Canary version, the warning changes to “browse more privately.” 

Both warnings in Stable and Canary mention that browsing activity may still be visible to “websites you visit,” “your employer or school,” or “your Internet service provider.” However, only the Canary warning specifies that Incognito mode “won’t change how websites collect data you visit and the services they use, including Google.”

Wired asked Google when they planned on adding the warning to Chrome’s stable channel and whether the update was related to the class action lawsuit, and this is what they had to say: 

“We’re pleased to resolve this case, which we’ve long disputed, and provide even more information to users about Incognito mode. Incognito mode in Chrome will continue to allow people to browse the Internet without their activity being saved to their browser or device.”

Ad Tech’s Privacy Champion? 

While Big G is under significant privacy scrutiny, it also positions itself as a privacy champion. When they announced that they were officially deprecating third-party cookies after years of delay and the launch of the Privacy Sandbox, the ad tech industry’s response was mixed. 

Some applauded Google’s attempt to be more privacy-compliant. Still, others questioned its motives. Even the major DSP, The Trade Desk, called Google’s privacy initiatives “self-serving.”  Can Google be ad tech’s privacy champion with all its data compliance issues? Is it allowed room to grow past its history of mistakes? Cases like this make you second-guess whether to trust its privacy ethics. Are we missing any master-level technicalities in the Privacy Sandbox? Time will tell.