Google's $5 billion privacy battle: the realities of incognito browsing

Think you're genuinely hidden in incognito? Dive deep into the shadows of Google's private browsing and uncover the myths and truths of online invisibility.

Google's incognito mode has long been the tool of choice for users who want to keep their web activity a secret from users of a shared device and companies intent on tracking their online activity. This is commonly called private browsing, or porn mode, depending on the circles you mix in.

Contrary to popular opinion, the privacy feature is not just for checking out adult content online. For example, most online flight search engines use cookies to track searches. After searching for the same journey multiple times, the prices will slowly rise to trick users into booking sooner rather than later. Users can save potentially huge costs by opening a separate incognito browsing window for each journey stage.

The hidden truth behind the incognito window

Many users are still unaware that an incognito browsing window doesn't hide their browsing history from their employer, internet service provider, or some of the websites they visit. Logging into any site such as Facebook, Amazon, or Gmail in a private window will still allow big tech to link your online activities between other accounts and profiles. Although to many, this will sound obvious, others continue to misuse the feature while enjoying a false sense of security.

However, before techies get too smug, even when you believe your online actions are veiled by anonymity, unseen forces might still be at play. Without ever logging into a platform, your virtual footprint is still easily traceable, thanks to "fingerprinting." This advanced form of tracking amalgamates details such as your IP address, screen resolution, installed fonts, and browser version. Fingerprinting crafts a unique profile — much like a detective piecing together the identity of an elusive figure from scattered hints.

This digital identity can persist across sessions and devices. It often remains unaffected by attempts to wipe browser histories or engage stealth modes. What this means for users is that the very facets that make your device 'yours' — those personal customizations and tweaks — might also be the factors that betray your online anonymity. So, even as you navigate the web under the comforting umbrella of 'incognito,' remember: your digital shadow may still be visible.

On trial for privacy: Google's incognito mode faces $5 billion challenge

Since ditching its "Don't be evil" motto from its corporate code of conduct, many have become increasingly cautious about trusting the tech behemoth. In a groundbreaking legal move from 2020, a colossal $5 billion lawsuit looms over Google's head, casting a shadow over its touted 'Incognito mode.' Plaintiffs argue vehemently that, despite assurances of privacy, Google's intricate web of cookies, analytics, and app-based tools failed to hit pause on tracking, even when users believed they were shielded under the incognito umbrella.

By contrast, Google stands firm in its defense, emphasizing its consistent clarity. They point out that Chrome's incognito function is not a veil of invisibility but merely a feature that prevents browsing data from being stored locally. In fact, every time a user opens a private browsing session, a warning does indeed appear. The problem is very few people read this warning, meaning that the crux of this lawsuit hinges on a classic debate: perceived security versus actual security.

Big tech giants often treat court cases as minor nuisances. From an outsider's perspective, potential fines seem like mere drops in their vast revenue ocean. For these corporations, penalties have become just another cost of doing business in their data-driven empires. But as the prospect of a $5 billion lawsuit moves a step closer to trial, the tech giant could pick up more than a bloody nose.

Did Google misrepresent what incognito mode does?

From a technical perspective, Google's incognito mode has always seemed transparent about its primary function: safeguarding a user's browsing history from other individuals using the same device. If your device is synced across multiple gadgets, this feature ensures privacy from prying eyes on all of them.

Tech-savvy individuals know its limitations well. However, the average user often feels pushed into accepting lengthy terms and conditions. These documents are sometimes written in dense legalese, seemingly to encourage mindless agreement.

The word 'history' might encompass a broader understanding to many users. They could presume that 'no history' means no trace whatsoever — no footprints left in the sands of cyberspace. This discrepancy between perceived privacy and actual functionality could give rise to misrepresentation claims. And if this was deliberately obfuscated to mislead the average user, then accountability questions do arise.

To add another layer to the debate, internal communications from Google Chrome engineers in 2018 shed light on their perception of incognito mode. Googlers joked about the inappropriateness of using a "Spy Guy" icon. Another linked it to a gag character from The Simpsons, "Guy Incognito," known for his laughable and ineffective disguise. The jest, though light-hearted, might inadvertently highlight a truth: incognito's promise of privacy might be just as superficial as Guy's mustache disguise. While humorous in isolation, such internal banter can be seen as downplaying the privacy concerns their user base might have.

Privacy often feels like a dwindling luxury, but incorporating a VPN browser extension can play a crucial role in safeguarding online anonymity. It provides a robust shield against the prying eyes of Internet Service Providers tracking your every move. It’s a barrier preventing advertisers from harvesting breadcrumbs of your online journey across websites.

While the incognito veil may seem opaque, true online invisibility might be more elusive than you think. Always question whether your digital shadow is truly hidden.