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Google's Incognito Mode Isn't As Private As It Sounds — Here's What You Need To Know

An IT security expert weighs in on how to actually keep your data private.

MTL Blog, Associate Editor
​A mobile phone with a Google Chrome browser in incognito mode.

A mobile phone with a Google Chrome browser in incognito mode.

When you open Google Chrome and click incognito mode, do you think your data is hidden? That websites can’t track what you search, that your internet service provider (ISP) can’t see which sites you're visiting? If you answered yes to any of those, you’d be sorely mistaken.

Google is caught up in a $5B lawsuit over the actual level of privacy offered by its incognito feature. A U.S. judge allowed the class action to move forward over claims that incognito mode may have lulled users into a false sense of privacy while continuing to collect their data.

Court documents published in early October show Google developers privately joked about how little protection incognito mode actually offers — one renaming the browsing feature "Guy Incognito" after Homer Simpson's spy alter ego, whose attempts to disguise himself with a top hat, suit and mustache prove futile.

Another recently revealed an email from Google’s head of marketing asking the company to make incognito mode "truly private" because her team had to use “fuzzy, hedging language” to promote the service due to its lack of actual privacy.

Is Google Incognito traceable?

Chrome’s Incognito mode simply opens a fresh browser window with no cookies or history and then deletes any cookies or history that have accumulated after the window is closed. That means anyone in your house can't see what you've been looking at online, but Google knows and so does your ISP.

"Users must assume that anything they do online is being tracked, directly by the first-party web service, and often by several other third-parties like Google or Facebook," Associate Professor at Concordia University's Institute for Information Systems Engineering Dr. Mohammad Mannan told MTL Blog.

"[Incognito mode] is somewhat effective only against cross-tab browsing, or limiting cookies across websites loaded on different tabs," said Mannan.

"Google or any other site can collect and store anything that you do on a private mode browser tab. Sites now use advanced features, like browser fingerprinting, instead of cookies to connect browsing activities. Incognito mode must not be relied on to do anything deemed as private, and yes, these labels can be misleading to many users."

Instead of opting for incognito mode, Google Chrome users should consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which encrypts user data before sharing it with a website.

"Preventing data collection is difficult to achieve for most common services that require an account. For services not requiring an account, like Google search, VPNs may help a bit," said Mannan.

The level of protection depends on the VPN provider and many charge a fee for the service.

A solid option for non-account browsing is the Tor browser, an independent, non-profit-made web navigator that encrypts user data and blocks trackers. You may not have a cool spy logo in the top left corner while you browse the web, but at least you'll know there's nobody watching your Internet connection and learning what sites you visit.

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