Chrome’s Incognito Mode Challenged by Class Action Lawsuit

By Chand Bellur

June 7, 2020 at 4:49 p.m. PT

  • Google’s Chrome browser offers a private “Incognito” mode, promising to protect user data.
  • A recent class-action lawsuit claims that Google tracks the end user’s browsing history, even if they use Incognito mode.
  • Google rebuffs the suit’s claim, pointing out that it informs users which data are private and which are accessible.

Class Action Lawsuit Targets Chrome’s Incognito Mode

Privacy is a primary concern for tech consumers. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans already feel their data isn’t protected, and there’s not much they can do about it. Adding to this concern, they feel that tech companies won’t admit that they’re using personal data without end-users’ consent.

This suspicion and perhaps some recent findings now challenge Google’s Chrome browser. The Boies Schiller Flexner law firm recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Google to win $5 billion in compensation for plaintiffs. Anyone who has used Incognito mode on Chrome is eligible for a $5000 payment if they win the case. If Google settles out of court, compensation may be less; however, they plan on fighting the case.

The suit alleges that Google still tracks a user’s browsing history in Incognito mode. Based on information displayed to Incognito mode users, the browser won’t record a user’s history; however, a website could do this. Given this disclaimer, one could assume that the law firm has some other information indicating that Google tracks Incognito mode users. Currently, there’s no proof that Google tracks Incognito mode users, and the lawyers won’t be forthcoming with this information until later in the process.

Google Refutes Claims of Privacy Violation

Google quickly addressed this issue by reiterating the disclaimer displayed in Incognito mode. While their browser does not store a user’s history, cookies, or form data, other sites may have access to this information. How else could they function? As a software engineer, I’m well aware that if you type something in a form and submit it, the web application will obtain the data. That’s how it works. Users want websites that work.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want information from a website and submit data in a form, the server collects that information regardless of Incognito mode. The web application uses the form data as input for whatever task it accomplishes.

The problem is, it’s unclear what information the lawyers have about Google. If they can prove that Google systematically tracks users, even with Incognito mode, they may have a case. At this time, we don’t know what evidence they have.

As it stands, however, Google’s Incognito mode seems to do what it claims. I use it all of the time, and I can tell that websites don’t remember me or persist my data. The problem is that Google could be accessing data that third parties cannot. After all, Chrome is their browser, and Google’s web presence could track users, while third-parties cannot.

Google profits from collecting and utilizing personal data. Incognito mode is antithetical to their interests. They do have a motive to cheat; however, there’s no sufficient evidence to make this claim. For now, you can either trust Google or use a different browser.

Safari May be a Better Option for Private Browsing

Apple does not profit from collecting personal information, although they do aggregate your data. In the Apple ecosystem, user data makes one’s life easier. Siri can suggest what app you probably want to use, for example. There are myriad cases where the use of your data makes your life easier.

Apple isn’t perfect. Recently, the tech giant got caught listening to customers’ Siri conversations. Although they did this to ensure quality, contractors (not employees) were privy to personal information. Apple’s QA contractors heard private discussions about medical details, romances, affairs, and other embarrassing information.

Although Apple has had its problems, Safari may be a better option if you’re concerned about private browsing. Apple’s revenues come from selling devices and services, not from hawking user data. User data and advertising are central to Google’s business model.

Consumers can look at Apple’s financial statements to verify that selling user data is not their concern. With this in mind, Safari is likely a safer bet for private browsing.

I use Google’s Incognito mode and will continue to use it. Chrome is a far superior browser to Safari, which still seems to render pages differently (and incorrectly) than other browsers. The web has never been Apple’s forte. If the class action suit wins, and Google has been archiving my history, I will seek compensation and perhaps change my relationship with Google, which has been on the rocks for some time.

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