The not-so-private Incognito Mode

You’ve gone Incognito? Well, you can’t browse privately. On June 2, 2020, a $5 billion lawsuit has been filed to the US District Court for the Northern District of California by a partner at the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm accusing Google of illegally gathering information during users’ private Incognito mode browsing sessions. As this is a class-action lawsuit- brought on behalf of a group of people who suffered from common injuries- everyone who has been using Google Chrome’s Incognito mode since June 1, 2016, is illegible to share in the $5 billion payouts.

Incognito mode is useful for reading articles or online newspapers since some of these websites limit the user to a certain number of free articles per day. This mode would be useful to prevent email scammers, as you do not need to create an account using your email address to read your favorite articles for free. However, while using Incognito mode, your IP address will still be visible to all and your Internet Service provider can track your online activity.  Hackers that use Incognito Mode to commit unlawful acts are in a pickle since their IP address is available to the government and that helps to hold them accountable.

Google’s parent firm Alphabet Inc. is accused of violating two communication laws in the United States- the Federal Wiretap Act and California Privacy laws. Attorney Mark C. Mao, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, said, “No matter what safeguards consumers undertake to protect their data privacy, Google tracks and collects their browsing history and other web activity data”.

The complaints filed by the New York-based law firm stated that search engine giant Google “intentionally deceive consumers” which is unlawful. Google’s practices encourage them to surf the web using Incognito Mode, as they believe they are maintaining their privacy.

Could you recall a time when you have been searching for food or clothes on Google and you came across similar sponsored posts on Facebook? In fact, Google learns about your friends, hobbies, favorite foods, shopping habits, and embarrassing things you have been searching for online, according to the complaint. The company collects data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, and other applications including smartphone apps.

“Alphabet Inc. will defend itself vigorously against the claims,” said Google representative Jose Castaneda according to Reuters. However, Incognito Mode provided by Google is ironic. Castaneda pointed out that it is clearly mentioned in the Incognito Mode that websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activities. When you open the webpage, Incognito Mode states, “Your activity might still be visible to websites you visit, your employer or school, your internet service provider.”  Castaneda avowed, “Using Incognito Mode gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device.” Thus, Alphabet Inc. may have grounds to defend itself in court.

On July 11, 2019, Google Chrome Developer Paul Irish tweeted about a problem Incognito Mode had been facing. “Chrome Incognito mode has been detectable for years, due to the File System API implementation. As of Chrome 76, this is fixed. Apologies to the ‘detect private mode’ scripts out there.”

On June 4, 2020, DuckDuckGo, an Internet Privacy company said on Twitter “Incognito mode isn’t private. It never was”. In addition, Psychologist and researcher for the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology Dr. Robert Epstein- a professor, author and Google critic – tweeted “As I’ve always said, you’re STILL being tracked when you’re in that mode”. Moreover, On June 6, 2020, he said in a tweet, “The Coronavirus has allowed Google to increase its surveillance. Latest move: Google MEET is now “free” (see ad below), which means all the data they collect from it are being used for advertising & manipulation purposes”.

On May 28, 2020, a Consumer Fraud lawsuit was filed against Alphabet Inc. by Arizona’s Attorney General Mark Brnovich.  The lawsuit states that Google tracks user’s locations even when it had been turned off. A violation of Google user’s privacy.  After obtaining user’s location data, Google exploits it for its lucrative advertising business, said Brnovich. Google is also facing other lawsuits in Australia and the United Kingdom.