Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Google Chrome Incognito Lawsuit

Tim Hardwick (also: Hacker News):

A proposed class action lawsuit in the U.S. has accused Google of violating federal wiretap laws by tracking the online activities of users when in Incognito mode.

According to Reuters, the class action argues that by surreptitiously collecting information about what people view online and where they browse when they use Chrome’s private browsing mode, Google has been intentionally deceiving customers into believing that they have control over the information they share with the company.

When you open a new incognito tab, Chrome tells you:

Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity.


Your activity might still be visible to:

  • Websites you visit
  • Your employer or school
  • Your internet service provider

Not deceptive at all.

Update (2021-03-14): Tim Hardwick:

A judge in California has ruled that Google must face a class action lawsuit alleging that it secretly tracks the online activity of Chrome users even when they’re using the browser in its privacy-oriented Incognito mode (via Bloomberg).

4 Comments RSS · Twitter

[…] about how much private browsing mode protects users from its data collection methods. As Michael Tsai points out, Chrome’s “Incognito” mode offers a warning that websites can still track you; […]

The message is absolutely deceptive. In the context of Google tracking the online activities of users in Incognito mode, Google is neither the website being visited, nor one’s employer or school, nor one’s ISP. The message does not say “your activity may still be visible to the company who makes your browser”.

@Arretez The activity is visible to Google because the site you visited uses Google Analytics, not because Google made the browser. It’s also visible to Google if you use a private window in Safari.

@Michael Tsai that is true, though I believe the amount of information made available to Google is lower when using Safari than when using Chrome, which is something. You are also right that the reason Google has access is because they provide analytics rather than because they make the browser, but it’s a distinction almost without a difference here. Chrome exists to facilitate Google’s analytics and ad business.

The main issue as I see it, though, is that the typical Chrome user, being someone who does not run something like Little Snitch (and thus does not see the average web page phoning home to 20 different URLs with no obvious relationship to the page publisher), is unlikely to have the knowledge necessary to interpret “websites you visit” as “websites you visit, and any external parties whose tools are embedded in those websites, probably including at least Google, Facebook, and Twitter”.

If you show someone that list, and ask them “if you use Incognito mode to visit but not, will Google know you visited Example?”, most people would probably say no.

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