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Google Is Collecting Data in Incognito Mode, Alleges Class Action Lawsuit

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Mar 15, 2021

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Google and parent company Alphabet Inc. are facing legal scrutiny over their data-gathering processes. The company will now face a U.S. lawsuit, after a court refused to quash a complaint that claims Google is monitoring and collecting users’ data even when they use a private browsing mode, according to a Bloomberg report.

“The court concludes that Google did not notify users that Google engages in the alleged data collection while the user is in private browsing mode,” California District Judge Lucy Koh wrote in her ruling.

Three Google users in June last year filed a complaint stating that Google is snooping on its users through a “pervasive data tracking business,” by collecting browsing data even when users are in ‘incognito’ mode — an option believed to hide users’ search activity. They alleged that other Google tools end up collecting personal information despite opting to turn off data collection.


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Incognito mode is a popular option on Google Chrome that is presumed to keep activities away from official data collection. “Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity,” Google’s incognito home page reads. It mentions that Chrome won’t save the following information: browsing activity, cookies, site data, and information used in forms.

The complaint highlights how incognito mode might still be surveying online behavior. “Google knows who your friends are, what your hobbies are, what you like to eat, what movies you watch, where and when you like to shop, what your favorite vacation destinations are, what your favorite color is, and even the most intimate and potentially embarrassing things you browse on the internet — regardless of whether you follow Google’s advice to keep your activities ‘private,’” according to the complaint.

Alphabet Inc. had requested the case be thrown out, saying the privacy policy users consent to explicitly notifies its data collection practices.

“Google also makes clear that ‘Incognito’ does not mean ‘invisible,’ and that the user’s activity during that session may be visible to websites they visit, and any third-party analytics or ads services the visited websites use,” company spokesperson José Castañeda told The Verge in response to the court ruling. “We clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing history during your session.” The company’s response is contrary to what people believe about Incognito, assumed to safeguard users’ internet activity.

Google had previously announced it is eliminating third-party tracking cookies, criticized for being invasive tools to collect users’ data and vulnerable to misuse. The company said it will not replace it with other data collection systems that relay information about individual online consumer habits to advertisers for profit. But data privacy still remains a concern, as Google still uses first-party cookies that allow it to track individual moves online.

Data privacy and protection have become critical considerations for internet users. The contemporary history of online surveillance has revealed how individual habits and preferences can be tracked for corporate or political gain. Users are figuring out how best to protect their digital footprints, and if they can have a life online without it. The lawsuit and Google’s response, however, make it clear that invisibility is but a chimeric vision in a surveillance state.

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Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.

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