Over the weekend, Bloomberg reported that a district court judge in San Jose, California, ordered that a lawsuit against Google could continue. The lawsuit alleges that Google continues to track users in Chrome, even when they use incognito mode, and asks for as much as $2 billion in damages.
At this point, the judge has only said that the lawsuit could move forward and that Google's motion to dismiss it was premature. Whether anyone will ever see any kind of payment is still a long way off, but it does present an interesting lesson for anyone who thinks that what they do online is kept private.
Google's defense to the lawsuit is essentially that it never said otherwise, though a lot of people assume that "private browsing" means that whatever you do is kept, well, private. Except, that's not actually the case. Private browsing modes only stop the browser itself from saving your browsing history.
In reality, Google still knows all of the same things about what you do online as it does when you browse normally. It knows what you search for and what sites you visit.
That's because any type of private browsing only affects your browser, but that's a very small piece of what is actually involved in navigating the internet. For example, your internet service provider and DNS providers still know every site you visit. That means if you're on a network at work, your employer could theoretically know. Even if you're working from home, if your company uses a virtual private network (VPN), it probably has access to all of your internet activity.
If you're logged into Google, it obviously also knows what you do on its websites. And incognito mode also doesn't automatically block third-party cookies that track you across the internet, meaning Google (and probably Facebook, among others) knows which sites you visit and what you do while you're there.
Chrome, and others, do give you the option to block those third-party cookies, but the setting includes the ominous phrase "features on some sites may break," which makes me question how many people actually enable that feature.
Really, there are two problems here, and they come down to communication and expectations. It isn't necessarily that Google is doing something nefarious. The problem is what people expect because of what Google says.
"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," the judge wrote in her ruling.
When you use Incognito Mode or Private Browsing, or whatever your particular browser of choice calls it, you probably expect that everything you do is kept private. Google doesn't explicitly say that everything you do will be private, but it also doesn't give a user any indication that it won't.
A reasonable person would be perfectly reasonable in assuming that "Incognito" means hidden from view. And it is, but only to whoever else uses the same browser on that device. That's great if what you're trying to do is plan a surprise anniversary trip for your spouse, without them knowing what you're up to. Just realize that you'll still most likely see ads for all-in-one resorts on every website you visit.
To be fair, that part isn't just a Google Chrome problem. It's actually true of all browsers, like Microsoft Edge and even more privacy-conscious options like Safari and Brave. With Google, the issue is just more obvious since it's not only the one tracking what you do, it's also the company that makes the browser the vast majority of people use--including those who thought they were getting a little privacy.
If you are looking to avoid tracking online, there are a few things you can do. Using a browser like Brave or Safari, both of which block third-party cookies and browser fingerprinting by default, is a good place to start. You can also use search engines like DuckDuckGo, which don't track your search history. Finally, using your own VPN service hides your IP address from websites, making it more difficult to identify or track you.
None of those things guarantee complete privacy online--that's almost impossible in the always-connected world we live in. They can help, however, if what you're really looking for is to go incognito for a little while.