Mobile phone with Google Chrome browser in incognito mode showing privacy lawsuit

Privacy Lawsuit Cites Internal Google Developer Jokes About “Incognito Mode” as Evidence the Company Knew It Didn’t Work as Advertised

The Chrome browser’s “Incognito Mode” is supposed to protect users from web snooping, but a class action privacy lawsuit claims that it doesn’t work and that internal company emails and postings prove that Google knows that it doesn’t.

Among these items, which were fished out of court records from prior Google legal actions, is an internal post in which a developer compares Incognito Mode to famous cartoon dad Homer Simpson’s bumbling attempt to disguise himself as “Guy Incognito.”

Google emails, posts indicate broad internal understanding that incognito mode is not private

Incognito Mode is an option in the Chrome browser that is supposed to keep user browsing and form entry data from being stored, and offers the option to block third-party cookies. However, Google does indicate that Incognito Mode does not protect the user from everything; namely, its own search engine, as well as third-party ad networks that websites make use of.

One needs to visit a Google help website page to learn all of this, however. The privacy lawsuit contends that the Chrome in-browser experience misleads people into believing that they are enjoying truly private browsing when they are not. Some of Google’s developers and other internal staff appear to agree, based on the contents of some of the messages entered into court records; they feel that the company needs to be clearer about exactly what users are protected from, an idea that Google rejected when changes were proposed on at least two occasions.

One of the primary pieces of evidence the privacy lawsuit is relying on is an email from Google marketing chief Lorraine Twohill to Chief Executive Sundar Pichai on International Data Privacy Day, in which Twohill asked that Incognito Mode be made “truly private” because the marketing team was forced to use “fuzzy, hedging language” that Twohill felt consumers could see through. Twohill explicitly stated that Incognito Mode was “not truly private” and that it needed a number of improvements to increase user trust.

Internal chats between Google Chrome engineers are also providing the privacy lawsuit with ammunition. The most colorful example starts with an engineer recommending that the “spy guy” icon that represents Incognito Mode in the browser be changed. Another engineer replied by comparing the level of privacy the mode provides to Guy Incognito, a none-too-convincing alias of Homer Simpson.

A Chrome product lead pitched executives on changing the language of the Incognito Mode launch screen, amending it to advise users that they were protected from others using that same device but were not protected from Google. The executives rejected the idea. And a 2020 slideshow presentation for executives included a slide that warned user trust may erode unless they are more clearly informed that their activity may be trackable while using the mode.

Google’s counter-argument is that users are informed that Incognito Mode does not make their browsing truly private, and they have given consent for the forms of data collection (for example via Google’s search bar) that remain active. The filing sits before US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of Oakland, who will render a decision as to whether complaints of this nature can be combined into a class action case; if it goes forward the privacy lawsuit could cost Google $100 to $1,000 per violation.

Privacy lawsuit adds to Google’s troubles, could provide search algorithm insight

Google is fielding a number of other legal troubles as the Incognito Mode case waits to go forward, but this particular one might be its most serious yet. Not just because of the potential expense, but the fact that the privacy lawsuit proceedings might expose exactly what Google does with the data it collects from users that are in Incognito Mode.

Publicity surrounding the privacy lawsuit may also deliver a shock to Chrome users, at least those that are not as technically savvy. A 2018 study conducted by the University of Chicago found that over half (56%) errantly believed that Incognito Mode kept their search history from being visible to Google, and 37% believed that it hid their activity from employers when using work systems.

Google is fresh off a settlement in the state of Arizona over alleged deceptive practices in its collection of user location tracking data, as the attorney general took the company to task for continuing to allow several of its apps to track users even after they had thought they had opted out via Android’s global privacy settings. That case cost the company $85 million, though Google admits no wrongdoing. The company also faces two different antitrust actions regarding its domination of the digital advertising market that could cost it billions of dollars, one in the UK and one in the EU.