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Google privacy lawsuit shows incognito mode isn’t really incognito

Some of us have been suspicious of incognito for quite some time, and this Google privacy lawsuit confirms our fears.

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Users of Google’s incognito mode incorrectly believe that their data is protected and their searches are, at least slightly more private. However, Google’s incognito mode only protects searches and data from other users of the same device, not Google.

Incognito mode states it doesn’t save your browsing history, cookies, and site data or information entered into forms and notifies the user that their activity may still be visible to their school, employer, and their internet service provider, but incognito mode doesn’t actually protect users from Google or any of its advertising partners from tracking and making money on your search history.

Furthermore, Google is (unsurprisingly) less than forthcoming about what exactly their incognito mode tracks, only saying that incognito mode opens a fresh, cookie-less web browser, and in more recent years, incognito mode protects users from some third-party cookies.

However, keep in mind several different types of cookies exist and Google will phase out third-party cookies completely by 2024. They will allow advertisers to use first-party cookies, so it will soon be a moot point that they don’t allow third-party cookies while in incognito mode.

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Third-party cookies are created on one domain and shared across all third-party domains that share that tracking code. Third-party ad tech companies store and manage lines of code to deliver and track ad campaigns across many different websites.

Ever notice that you look at one product on one website and suddenly you’re getting spammed with ads for that product on every website you visit? Well, that’s third-party cookies at work. Conversely, first-party cookies are stored directly on the website you visit, and allow website owners to collect analytics data, and remember language settings, logins, and shopping cart items. While first-party cookies tend to lend themselves to a smoother user experience, they are still tracking you, and your data, to better sell to you.

It is also important to note that manifest V3 is on the horizon, and users may be forced to make the switch as early as 2023. Basically, Google has created an ad-block limiting extension, and users may soon not have a choice in seeing pop-up ads. Google claims this shift is meant to bring enhancements in privacy, security, and performance, but it feels like just another way for users to be under Google’s watchful eye.

Even Google employees don’t trust incognito mode and feel that the term incognito, along with the “spy guy” image that pop-ups when the browser is launched should be phased out, as it is misleading to users. Google Marketing Chief, Lorraine Twohill, presented some ideas to Alphabet Inc, Google’s parent company, to help gain user trust and make Incognito mode really private. Yet another internal proposal suggested that Incognito mode come with a very clear and straightforward disclaimer. “You are NOT protected from Google” any time a user opens Incognito mode. Both of these ideas were rejected by executives at Google or Alphabet Inc.

Considering that Google made 81% of its total revenue from Ad revenue in 2021, it makes sense that Google would try and squeeze as much data from users as possible, in order to better advertise to them.

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As of June 2020, Google faced a five-billion-dollar lawsuit for tracking private internet use. Even in Incognito mode, Google uses Google ads (regardless of if a user clicks those ads), Google analytics, and various web plug-ins and applications to track user data.

According to the lawsuit Google “cannot continue to engage in the conversion and unauthorized data collection from virtually every American with a computer or smartphone.”

Attorney General Paxton, who filed the suit, feels that Incognito mode is a deceptive trade practice. Paxton included 270 exhibits in the initial case filing, but only a small portion of those have been made available to the public. Testimonies from both the state and Google are under a protective order, and can only be viewed by the attorneys working on the case. Google, however, defends that they’ve done nothing wrong and informs users that their web traffic is still visible in many cases.

The lawsuit is ongoing and, as of September of this year, Google court documents show that users who opt out of tracking are still being tracked. Court documents also revealed that Google Maps creates a snapshot of where users are whenever they open the application regardless of if the user has location services turned on. There are other documents that came to light during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, but it is classified information as of right now. The trial is set to begin later this month on October 24th.

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Nicole is a recent graduate (okay fine, a recent-ish graduate) of Texas State University-San Marcos where she received a BA in Psychology. When she's not doing freelance writing, she's doing freelance Public Relations. When she's not working, she's hanging out with dogs or her friends - in that order. Nicole watches way too much Netflix and is always quoting The Office. She has an obsession with true crime and sloths.

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