(Credit: Brett Jordan/Unsplash>
If you thought Google Chrome’s Incognito mode prevented third parties from seeing your browsing history, you’d be wrong—but you wouldn’t be alone. Google is currently attempting to shirk a potential lawsuit that claims it collected Chrome users’ web activity when they were using Incognito mode.
The legal skirmish began in April 2021, when three Chrome users filed a class action complaint alleging that Google tracks and stores users’ browsing history and other data regardless of the actions those users take to safeguard their privacy. The complaint accused Google of using the public’s growing concern over data privacy to push Incognito mode, a version of Chrome that Google itself advertises as a way to “browse the web privately” and stay “in control of what information [users] share with Google.”
Many tech-savvy web surfers know of Incognito’s lack of true confidentiality. Google says Incognito prevents other people who use the same device from seeing your browsing history, while ISP, network administrators, and websites themselves can still track your activity. But it shouldn’t take a mini investigation to find that out, and last year’s complaint purports that Google is taking advantage of the casual user by making it sound as though Incognito is more secure than it really is.
Sure enough, that might be the case. Court filings first spotted by Bloomberg last week reveal that Google employees knew of Incognito’s lack of true privacy. “We need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon,” one engineer said in a 2018 team chat. The comment spurred jokes about what could replace the existing icon, including an image of The Simpsons’ Guy Incognito—a character who looks like Homer Simpson in disguise, but isn’t actually him. Later, the same engineer pointed to a 2018 study showing that more than half of Chrome users believe Incognito prevents Google from collecting their browsing history.
Executives knew of Incognito’s hidden discretion, too. Last year Marketing Chief Lorraine Twohill emailed CEO Sundar Pichai to say the company should consider making Incognito “truly private.” “We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging,” Twohill said. A product lead responded with a suggestion to change the verbiage on Incognito’s new tab page due to a lack of transparency, but the suggestion was ultimately ignored.
Google has been attempting to have the case dismissed ever since the initial complaint was filed, but so far, its attempts have failed. The Northern District of California’s 9th Circuit Court is currently deciding whether to allow the case to move forward as a class action suit. If it gives the green light, millions of US Chrome users could together pursue statutory damages ranging from $100 to $1,000 per violation.
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