Google Updates Chrome’s Incognito Warning to Acknowledge ‘Private’ Mode User Tracking in Reality

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Google Updates

Google Updates Chrome’s Incognito Warning to Acknowledge ‘Private’ Mode User Tracking in Reality

Chrome Canary now includes the cautionary notice in the interim while Google resolves a class-action lawsuit.

Google is enhancing the cautionary message on Chrome’s Incognito mode to explicitly state that Google and other firms’ websites can still get your data when using the web browser’s partially private mode.

Google is implementing this modification in response to an impending settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleges privacy breaches associated with Chrome’s Incognito mode. The augmented cautionary notice was recently incorporated into Chrome Canary, a nightly version specifically designed for developers. The notice explicitly acknowledges one of the grievances raised in the case, which is the alleged lack of clarity in Google’s Incognito mode about the collection of user data.

It is widely understood among technologically proficient individuals that private modes in web browsers do not fully prevent websites or internet service providers from tracking user activity, despite their ability to limit data storage on the device. However, there may be a lack of comprehension among many individuals regarding the exact functionality of Incognito mode. Therefore, the provision of a more precise warning could serve to enlighten and educate users.

The latest notification displayed in Chrome Canary upon opening an incognito window states: “You are currently in Incognito mode. Other users of this device will not have visibility of your activities, allowing you to surf with a higher degree of privacy. This will not alter the methods by which websites you visit and the services they employ, including Google, to gather data. The phrasing may be understood as pertaining to both Google-owned websites and external websites, including those that depend on Google’s advertising services.

As of Tuesday, the new warning had not been incorporated into the developer, beta, or stable versions of Chrome. Furthermore, it was not present in Chromium. The transition to Canary was previously documented by MSPowerUser.

“Now You Can Browse Privately”

The stable version of Chrome’s Incognito mode continues to display the message: “You’ve gone Incognito.” Now you have the ability to browse in a manner that ensures your privacy, preventing any other individuals utilizing this gadget from observing your online activities. One of the modifications includes replacing the phrase “browse privately” with “browse more privately” in the Canary warning.

Both the steady and Canary warnings indicate that your browsing activity may be visible to “websites you visit,” “your employer or school,” or “your Internet service provider.” However, it is important to note that only the Canary warning presently specifies that Incognito mode “will not alter the way data is gathered by the websites you visit and the services they utilize, including Google.”

Both the previous and current cautions state that Incognito mode in Chrome disables the browser from storing your browsing history, cookies, site data, and form input. However, it clarifies that downloads, bookmarks, and reading list items will still be kept. Both warnings direct to this page, which offers additional information on Incognito mode.

We inquired with Google regarding the specific timing of the inclusion of the warning in Chrome’s stable channel, as well as the connection between this change and the impending resolution of the privacy class-action lawsuit. Google did not furnish explicit answers but presented the following statement: “We are content to settle this case, which we have vehemently contested for a long time, and furnish users with even more information regarding Incognito mode.” The Incognito mode in Chrome allows anyone to browse the Internet without their browsing activity being stored on their browser or device.

The legal proceedings commenced in June 2020 at the US District Court for the Northern District of California. Google and the plaintiffs declared on December 26, 2023, that they have achieved a settlement which they intend to submit to the court for endorsement within a span of 60 days. A jury trial was previously slated to commence on February 5.

Lawsuit: Google Failed to Disclose Tracking

In March 2023, a fourth amended complaint was filed, accusing the defendant of breaching federal wiretap law, California’s Invasion of Privacy Act, California’s Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, and California’s Unfair Competition Law. It additionally claimed violations of privacy, interference with personal space, and breach of agreement.

The lawsuit alleges that Google’s Privacy Policy, Privacy ‘Controls,’ and ‘Incognito Screen’ all make deceptive claims about users’ ability to avoid Google’s data collection through the usage of “Private Browsing Mode.” The plaintiffs provided a description of the promises made by the present Incognito screen.

“According to the information provided by Google, Plaintiffs and Class members had a reasonable expectation that Google would not gather their data while using Incognito mode during the entire Class Period.” The users correctly interpreted the phrases “You’ve gone incognito” and “Now you can browse quietly” as indicating that they may browse the internet without Google’s ongoing tracking and data collecting.

Google had the option to reveal via the Incognito Screen that it would monitor users and gather their data during private surfing, yet it chose not to do so. Google incorporated visual elements to give users the impression that they were browsing in a private and anonymous manner, with the exception of a few specific cases. However, Google did not reveal its own tracking and data-gathering activities when users were in this private browsing mode.

The lawsuit alleges that Google’s code persistently transmits the user’s browsing history and additional data directly to Google’s servers even during private browsing sessions. Consequently, the session is not truly private, and other individuals who utilize the same device will be aware of the preceding users’ activities through targeted advertisements provided by Google, which are based on the browsing activity that occurred during the so-called “private browsing.” Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that user activities remain visible to Google, as the company continues to monitor users, intercept their communications, and gather their data while they are in Incognito mode or other private browsing modes.

The lawsuit pointed out that the Incognito screen, as well as any other depiction by Google, lacks a disclaimer regarding Google’s ongoing tracking of users during their private browsing sessions. “Google’s Privacy Policy and Incognito Screen do not indicate to users that Google persistently monitors them or sells their browsing history and communications to other third parties during private browsing.” Indeed, by reading both the Privacy Policy and the Incognito Screen, the user inevitably arrives at a contradictory inference.

Google Points to Privacy Policy and Developer Tools

Google contended that the plaintiffs willingly agreed to allow Google to receive and utilize the information in question, regardless of whether they were using Chrome’s Incognito mode or a private browsing mode in another browser. Google’s privacy policy explicitly states that users, upon creating their accounts, agree to the disclosure that Google obtains the relevant information from its services integrated into third-party websites.

Google stated that users also “implicitly agreed to Google’s acquisition of the information as they were aware that Google obtains such information when users visit websites that utilize Google’s services.”

According to Google, individuals have the option to utilize Chrome’s Developer Tools, which can be accessible through the Chrome menu, or comparable functionalities in alternative web browsers. This allows users to gain insight into the third-party services, including Google services, that are being utilized by the websites they visit, as well as the data that is being transmitted to these services.

Google further contended that the public is aware of its acquisition of user information due to extensive coverage in the news media and other public discussions.

This story originally appeared on ArsTechnica.

About The Author:

Yogesh Naager is a content marketer who specializes in the cybersecurity and B2B space.  Besides writing for the News4Hackers blog, he’s also written for brands including CollegeDunia, Utsav Fashion, and NASSCOM.  Naager entered the field of content in an unusual way.  He began his career as an insurance sales executive, where he developed an interest in simplifying difficult concepts.  He also combines this interest with a love of narrative, which makes him a good writer in the cybersecurity field.  In the bottom line, he frequently writes for Craw Security.

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