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HomeGoogleGoogle facing $5 billion lawsuit over incognito mode tracking

Google facing $5 billion lawsuit over incognito mode tracking

Google facing  billion lawsuit over incognito mode tracking
Incognito Icon Illustration. Browse in private; Shutterstock ID 1276147669; Purchase Order: -
Incognito doesn’t mean private (Credits: Shutterstock / Korosi Francois-Zoltan)

Google is facing a class action lawsuit in the US over how its browser, Google Chrome, handles tracking when users activate incognito mode.

A judge in the States ruled that Google will have to face the lawsuit, which is seeking damages of a whopping $5 billion – around £3.5 billion.

Originally filed in June 2020, the lawsuit alleges that even when incognito mode is activated, Google Chrome still allows websites to collect personal information.

The lawsuit states: ‘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.

Google’s parent company Alphabet initially tried to have the case thrown out. Now, a spokesperson for Google has told US media the company will ‘defend ourselves vigorously’.

The company points out that incognito mode is not meant to make your browsing invisible on the web. Even though the browser itself doesn’t record your history, there’s nothing to stop other websites or a person’s internet service provider (ISP) from keeping a record.

Bukit Lawang, Sumatra / Indonesia - October 25 2018: Incognito mode tab in Google Chrome web browser.; Shutterstock ID 1212169402; Purchase Order: -
When you open incognito mode, it actually tells you what activity might be tracked (Credits: Shutterstock / Sam Kresslein)

Google added: ‘As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.’

What does incognito mode do on Google Chrome?

Incognito mode is billed as more private because the user’s history isn’t recorded, websites aren’t cached and cookies aren’t saved on a user’s computer.

To do this Google disables some background features, such as one called the FileSystem API which avoids leaving traces of activity on someone’s device.

But that isn’t the full story.

Mountain View, USA - August 28, 2015: Big Google logotype on the glass office building at Google Headquarters office located at Mountain View, California
Google says it plans to fight the lawsuit(Credits: Getty Images)

Websites are able to check the availability of FileSystem API, and if they receive an error message back, determine that the person is using Incognito mode, and provide them a different experience.

And crucially, everything you do on the internet from your computer is routed through your IP address.

So, unless you mask that with a virtual private network (VPN), your internet provider is going to know exactly what you’re doing whether you’re in incognito mode or not.