We have all accepted our lot in life. The internet is mostly free to use once access is granted. Yes, we now understand that we pay with our data but that sounds like a fair trade to most. In an ideal world, we would not have our data harvested but hey, it beats shelling out cash money.
The deal is we use services like Google search, Gmail and even the Chrome browser for free whilst Google sells the data they collect on us to advertisers.
We have accepted the above but there are times when we do want a little privacy. There are some embarrassing things we would rather Google did not track and share with advertisers. It may be a medical thing or some random thing you’re curious about but do not want to forever be associated with.
Google recognises this and offers an Incognito mode on its Chrome browser. You turn that on either by hitting the three-dot menu in the top right corner and selecting ‘New Incognito window’ or by hitting Ctrl+Shift+N.
Chrome will tell you that you have gone incognito. The Incognito window comes in dark mode and a spy guy icon will reassure you that you’re browsing safely. You can then fire away your sensitive queries.
Incognito is not what it seems
That sounds good except Google was taken to court for misleading people about just how private the Incognito browsing sessions are. The lawsuit claims they are not really private at all saying that in reality, Google deceptively collects an array of personal data even when a user has engaged Incognito mode.
Of course, Google argues that they have been upfront about what Incognito mode is and isn’t.
To be fair to them, they do clearly lay out what Incognito is: none of your browsing history, cookies and site data, or information entered in forms are saved on your device.
What it isn’t: it won’t prevent you from telling a website who you are, or prevent your activity or location from being visible to the websites you visit, your IT admin or even your ISP. It won’t prevent the websites you visit from serving ads based on your activity during an Incognito session either.
The lawsuit against them says the average person doesn’t understand the nuances. This is corroborated by research which shows that users misunderstand features of private browsing modes.
Google employees joke about Incognito
Some internal Google messages on Incognito have been brought to light by Bloomberg and they don’t look good. The first is an email that the marketing chief sent to the CEO.
In it was the bullet point, “make Incognito Mode 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 damaging.”
It appears it is a running joke among Google engineers too. In a chat one engineer candidly wrote, “We need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon.” To which another responded by saying that the icon should be of Guy Incognito, a Simpsons character which “accurately conveys the level of privacy it provides.”
The engineers think Incognito is a joke and here you were thinking you were unplugged from the matrix when you turned it on.
Still more Google employees implored their bosses to change the customer-facing language on Incognito. One product lead made a proposal to make the launch screen say, “You are NOT protected from Google,” instead of “You are protected from other people who use this device.” This was rejected by executives, as you would expect.
If there’s anything to take away from these emails and texts, it’s that Google employees know that Incognito is anything but Incognito. The courts will have to decide if Google is liable to pay users for misleading them about what Incognito is, however clearly they think they communicated its limitations.
Now we know
We have all known that Incognito Mode is not a Tor alternative. Personally, I use it when I don’t want to have to delete the search query from my browsing history. Or when I want to check out videos on YouTube that I don’t want to factor into my recommendations after the fact.
So, Incognito is not without its uses. All we have to remember is that it’s not a spy-grade tool to unplug from the matrix.