Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

This may come as no surprise, but Google collected your private data while you were browsing in Chrome’s Incognito Mode. A class-action lawsuit is now forcing the search giant to delete this data and update Chrome’s default Incognito privacy settings.

Since its introduction, Chrome Incognito Mode has been billed as a “private browsing” mode. This description is only somewhat accurate. Yeah, Incognito Mode can hide your browsing history from your spouse, and it provides a “clean slate” without any active website logins, but it doesn’t block trackers or provide any substantial privacy-protecting features.

Some users are well aware of Incognito Mode’s capabilities (or lack thereof). But most users are unaware. They just know that when they open Incognito Mode, they’re told, “now you can browse privately.”

This discrepancy became the focus of a class-action lawsuit in 2020. Privacy advocates accused Google of collecting “personal and sensitive data” from Incognito users “without disclosure or consent.” Data collection was accomplished through Google web services (Search, Maps, etc), website-embedded Google ad trackers, and Google-owned software that runs on user devices (such as Android).

These are the same data collection methods that Google uses when Incognito browsing is disabled. Google doesn’t deny that it collects data from Incognito users, and it claims that this form of data collection is consensual.

In any case, the class-action suit appears to have reached a settlement. Google has agreed to delete (or anonymize) all private data collected from Incognito sessions before December 2023, and it will now block third-party cookies in Incognito Mode by default. Users who open Incognito Mode will encounter a more detailed explanation of the feature’s capabilities, too.

As for the impact of this settlement—well, I’m cynical. We don’t know what data Google is deleting, and if any of this data was sold to advertisers or used for ad profiling, the damage has already been done. Yes, Incognito Mode is slightly more secure than it was before. Blocking third-party cookies by default is a step in the right direction. But it’s a direction that Chrome has already embraced, as Google is currently working to replace traditional ad-targeting systems with its Privacy Sandbox.

Note that the settlement hasn’t been finalized, although it seems to be heading that way. Also, plaintiffs failed to secure any cash in this settlement deal, so any individuals who feel entitled to monetary damages must file their own claim with the U.S. court.

If you’re seriously concerned about web privacy, you need to put in the work and do some critical thinking. Google is the biggest advertising company in the world. Intercepting, collecting, and selling data is its job and duty. If Incognito Mode actually protected users from being tracked, it wouldn’t be offered in Chrome.

Source: NPR

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By John P.

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