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About Google’s Incognito Mode — Techies Think You’ve Been Had

A recent lawsuit revealed that users may think Google is not watching them but programmers know that it is

When Incognito mode (“If you don’t want Google Chrome to remember your activity, you can browse the web privately in Incognito mode”) was challenged in court, programmers made some interesting admissions. While 56.3 percent of respondents surveyed in 2018 thought that Incognito “prevents Google from seeing their search history,” the reality is, according to techies, “Seriously, we all know private browsing modes don’t hide us from anything other than our spouse.”

This is now blowing up:

Google faces a potential privacy case as a class of millions of users filed to sue it for billions of dollars over Chrome’s Incognito mode lack of genuine privacy protections. While user ignorance is never a great argument in front of a judge, court documents first filed in March of 2021 paint a picture that Google has been complicit in cultivating user misconceptions on privacy.

According to the filings, Google Marketing Chief Lorraine Twohill emailed CEO Sundar Pichai last year, warning that they need to consider making Incognito “truly private.” Even more concerning is her indirect admission that they have had to use misleading language when marketing the feature.

“We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging,” Twohill said.

Cal Jeffrey, “Court documents allege Google cultivated privacy misconceptions of Chrome’s Incognito mode” at Techspot (October 18, 2022)

Google has tried twice, unsuccessfully, to get the case dismissed. Among programmers, it’s been a joke, based on the spy hat-and-glasses logo:

Internal chats between Google Chrome engineers are also providing the privacy lawsuit with ammunition. The most colorful example starts with an engineer recommending that the “spy guy” icon that represents Incognito Mode in the browser be changed. Another engineer replied by comparing the level of privacy the mode provides to Guy Incognito, a none-too-convincing alias of Homer Simpson.

Scott Ikeda, “Privacy Lawsuit Cites Internal Google Developer Jokes About “Incognito Mode” as Evidence the Company Knew It Didn’t Work as Advertised” at CPO Magazine (October 28, 2022)

Some programmers, defending Google, argue that you should have known Incognito isn’t private. Well, now you do.

Speaking of Google, the Republican National Committee is suing the firm because a suspiciously large number of its e-mails to supporters end up in the spam folder:

The lawsuit, filed Friday in a California federal court, claims that the party’s email analytics programs have documented a 10-month pattern of email suppression toward the end of each month, “historically when the RNC’s fundraising is most successful,” the suit complains…

Researchers at North Carolina State University who studied email patterns ahead of the 2020 presidential election found that Google’s Gmail algorithm labeled GOP fundraising e-mails as spam at a rate 820% higher than Democratic Party messages, sparking a formal Republican complaint to the Federal Election Commission.

Mary Kay Linge, “GOP sues Google for labeling its emails as spam, claims ‘blatant bias’” at New York Post (October 22, 2022)

However that turns out, control of e-mail traffic is an often overlooked but critical source of big social media control.

Meanwhile, on the privacy question, China-owned TikTok has been raising some questions lately:

A team at TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance planned to harness data from the app to “monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens,” according to an explosive report published in Forbes Thursday.

TikTok has been embroiled in controversy in the last few years over questions about whether the app could expose its data to the Chinese government. The company is involved in an ongoing negotiation with regulators to address national security concerns, but the Forbes report seems to confirm some of the worst fears about the social media app.

Thomas Germain, “New Report Seems to Confirm the Worst Fears About How TikTok Uses Data” at Gizmodo (October 21, 2022)

From the Report:

But in at least two cases, the Internal Audit team also planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a U.S. citizen who had never had an employment relationship with the company, the materials show. It is unclear from the materials whether data about these Americans was actually collected; however, the plan was for a Beijing-based ByteDance team to obtain location data from U.S. users’ devices.

TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said that TikTok collects approximate location information based on users’ IP addresses to “among other things, help show relevant content and ads to users, comply with applicable laws, and detect and prevent fraud and inauthentic behavior.”

But the material reviewed by Forbes indicates that ByteDance’s Internal Audit team was planning to use this location information to surveil individual American citizens, not to target ads or any of these other purposes.

Emily Baker-White, “The project, assigned to a Beijing-led team, would have involved accessing location data from some U.S. users’ devices without their knowledge or consent.” at Forbes (October 20, 2022)

It is becoming increasingly clear that social media is “free” only in the sense that users are not usually paying for it.


You may also wish to read: Google and the woke morality police cancel anti-porn apps. Covenant Eyes and Accountability2You have been removed from the Google Play Store. The censors at Wired and Google appear to believe that pornography is beneficial. If so, banning accountability apps must be socially responsible. (Michael Cook)


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About Google’s Incognito Mode — Techies Think You’ve Been Had