How private is Google’s Incognito mode? Tech giant to delete data it shouldn’t have harvested

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. File picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. File picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Published Apr 2, 2024


Google has found itself in hot water in the US after users accused its "Incognito Mode" of being less private than it might seem.

In order to settle a class action lawsuit that was originally filed in June 2020 in California, the tech giant has reportedly agreed to delete a vast trove of search data from its systems.

The object of the lawsuit was the "Incognito Mode" in the Chrome browser that plaintiffs said gave users a false sense that their online browsing was not being tracked by the Silicon Valley tech firm.

The lawsuit brought to light internal Google emails revealing that users were being tracked by the company for measuring web traffic and selling ads, even when in Incognito Mode.

The lawsuit claimed Google's practices had infringed on users' privacy by intentionally deceiving them with the incognito option.

The original complaint alleged that Google had been given the "power to learn intimate details about individuals' lives, interests, and internet usage."

"Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it," it added.

If the settlement is approved, Google will be required to block third-party tracking "cookies" by default in Incognito Mode for at least the next five years.

Third-party cookies are small files which are used to target advertising by tracking web navigation and are placed by visited sites and not by the browser itself.

Proposed settlement

The proposed settlement was filed in San Francisco on Monday and if it is approved by a judge, Google will be required to "delete and/or remediate billions of data records" linked to people using the Chrome browser's incognito mode, according to court documents.

"This settlement is an historic step in requiring dominant technology companies to be honest in their representations to users about how the companies collect and employ user data, and to delete and remediate data collected," lawyer David Boies said in the filing.

The settlement calls for no cash damages to be paid but leaves an option for Chrome users who feel they were wronged to sue Google separately to get money.

The hearing is slated for July 30.

"We are pleased to settle this lawsuit, which we always believed was meritless," Google spokesman Jorge Castaneda said in a statement.

"We are happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization."

How safe are you in private browsing modes?

Private browsing functions are never truly private, Google competitor Mozilla warns. The firm says its Firefox browser, when in Incognito Mode, will keep local browsing private (as far as your device’s recorded history goes), but it won't stop your internet service provider, school or employer from seeing where you've been online.

“Your ISP has access to all your browsing activity pretty much no matter what you do. You can, however, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service.”

It is largely the same with other browsers, including Google Chrome. But these modes are meant to be more private than regular browsing.

Similarly Apple says its Safari browser won’t remember the pages you visit, your search history or your AutoFill information. The American firm claims its private browsing function can also block known trackers, remove tracking used to identify individual users from URLs and adds protections against advanced fingerprinting techniques.

Are cookies on the way out?

Earlier this year Google began limiting third-party cookies for some users of its Chrome browser, a first step towards eventually abandoning the files that have raised privacy concerns.

Google announced in January 2020 that it would begin eliminating third-party cookies within two years, but the start has been delayed several times amid opposition from web media publishers.

Cookies have recently been subject to greater regulation, including the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation introduced in 2016 as well as regulations in California.


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