Privacy, Endpoint/Device Security

New Chrome Incognito tab discloses Google’s data tracking

logo of 'Google Chrome Incognito Mode'

Google Chrome’s Incognito tab received a slight update Monday, stating more clearly to users that websites can still track their Incognito browsing activity.

The update was added to Google Chrome’s Canary build Monday night, MSPowerUser first reported. Chrome Canary is a version of Chrome for developers that includes experimental releases and is updated nearly every night, potentially previewing future permanent features.

Following the version 122.0.6251.0 update to Chrome Canary, the first two sentences of the Incognito tab’s disclaimer read: “Others who use this device won’t see your activity, so you can browse more privately. This won’t change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google.”

This replaces the first sentence of the original Incognito disclaimer, which still appears on the more commonly used stable version of Chrome: “Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity.”

The wording change comes after Google agreed in December 2023 to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company led users to believe they were not being tracked while using Incognito mode. The lawsuit was filed in 2020 and originally sought $5 billion; a final settlement agreement is expected by Feb. 24, 2024, according to the Associated Press.

“The change that Google Chrome has made is unfortunately not surprising. They addressed the accuracy of their disclosure in line with their business which was their original defense, rather than making meaningful changes to support privacy.” Claude Mandy, chief evangelist of data security at Symmetry Systems, told SC Media.

Is Incognito mode really private?

The original Chrome Incognito mode disclaimer stated that users can “browse privately” while the new version only claims “more” privacy while browsing. Both versions note web activity may still be visible to sites one visits, but the newer version more clearly informs users that websites, including Google, continue to collect browsing data in Incognito tabs.

Not only can websites continue tracking users who use Incognito, but Google can track Incognito users who visit sites that use Google services, such as Google Ad Manager and Google Analytics. This is one reason cited by Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers for ruling against Google’ motion for summary judgement in the privacy lawsuit in August 2023, The Verge reported.

“[…] in the Incognito Splash Screen, Google already tells users that their activity might be visible to third-party websites. This statement is consistent. However, it does not tell users that their activity is certainly visible to Google — which is the issue,” Rogers wrote.

It is unclear if or when the updated Incognito tab will be added to stable versions of Chrome in the future. SC Media reached out to a Google representative for comment and did not receive a response.

In comparison to Chrome’s Incognito splash page, Microsoft Edge’s InPrivate splash page states that InPrivate browsing does not “Give you additional protection from tracking by default.” Firefox’s Private browsing tab states this browsing mode “doesn’t make you anonymous,” and links to an article by Firefox titled “Common Myths about Private Browsing.”

“Incognito mode, and its equivalent, to other browsers, has never offered much more privacy protection than people hiding their web viewing habits from their parents or partners,” noted John Bambenek, president of Bambenek Consulting, in an email to SC Media. “This lawsuit highlights that this mode doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy at all.”

Meanwhile, Google is currently testing its Google Chrome Tracking Protection feature, which automatically disabled third-party cookies by default for 1% of Chrome users starting Jan. 4, 2024.

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