Even Google’s own staff think ‘incognito’, its so-called private browsing mode, isn’t all it’s supposed to be

It turns out that even Google’s own workforce isn’t convinced by the company’s claims about Incognito Mode’s privacy protections.

Employees allegedly made jokes about the feature’s inane and potentially misleading privacy protections over the past few years, a marketing executive allegedly emailed CEO Sundar Pichai directly, essentially begging him to make sure that the product lives up to its name according to recent court documents. seen by Bloomberg. These inside jokes and criticism come amid several lawsuits questioning Google’s transparency around the feature.

In an email sent to Pichai, Google’s chief marketing officer, Lorraine Twohill, reportedly warned that the current customer confusion around Incognito mode was forcing the company to dance around using vague, covert language that ultimately risked degrading. consumer confidence.

“Make Incognito mode truly private,” she wrote in the email. It should be noted that Twohill sent this email after several users deposited several billion dollars privacy class action lawsuit against Google for allegedly tracking users while using Incognito. These users claim that the so-called surreptitious tracking amounts to privacy violations. The judge presiding over the trial last week refuse to let the plaintiffs question Pichai as part of pre-trial proceedings despite the CEO’s ties to Google Chrome development and relevant emails regarding Incognito.

Let’s go back for a second. For clarity, Google Chrome’s so-called Incognito Browsing hides your search history from others using your device, but doesn’t actually prevent Google or its advertiser friends from logging in and profiting from your search history. Incognito’s critics, like the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, and more recently Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, argue that Google’s branding and messaging around Incognito makes it appear much more respectful of the environment. private life than it really is. Paxton, in particular, alleged the company’s Incognito Mode depictions are “false, misleading and misleading”.

Google, for its part, vigorously denies these objections.

“Privacy controls have long been built into our services and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas for improving them,” a Google spokesperson said in an email to Gizmodo. “Incognito mode provides users with a private browsing experience, and we’ve been clear about how it works and what it does while plaintiffs in this case deliberately misrepresented our statements.”

Google, according to court documents seen by Bloomberg, also claims that it is common knowledge that Incognito mode does not provide complete invisibility on the web and claims that users consent each time they use the service.

Meanwhile, additional court documents obtained by Bloomberg show other employees shared Twohill’s sentiment.

“We need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon,” one engineer said in a 2018 chat. publicly available research showing that users didn’t really understand how the feature worked. Another employee casually responded by posting a wiki to the page to “guy incognito” of The simpsons, who, apart from a small mustache, looks like Homer Simpson. This low-effort disguise, according to the employee, “accurately conveys the level of intimacy he [Incognito] provides. »

A Google Chrome product manager reportedly even offered to change the Incognito launch page to read “You are NOT protected from Google” as opposed to “You are protected from other people using this device”. Needless to say, Google screwed up that idea.

To Google’s credit, Chrome’s Incognito launch page provides important details about feature limitations, but research shows that those notes, some of which require clicking an additional “learn more” tab, aren’t cracked.

56.3% of participants in a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and Leibniz University of Hannover, for example, said they believed Incognito prevented Google from seeing their search history. This is not the case. Another 37% thought Incognito could prevent their employers from tracking them, which is also not accurate. In fact, in incognito mode, according Daniel Markuson of Nord VPN “only prevents your own browser from logging your traffic. It does not hide your IP. Unlike VPNs that encrypt traffic, Markuson says Incognito simply clears browsing history and deletes cookies when users close a browser.

“Your ISP and employer, websites, search engines, governments, and other third-party snoopers may still collect your data and track your IP address,” Markuson wrote.

“Google has a pretty decent and stupid way to protect your privacy, but it’s not very sophisticated and lacks many ways trackers can still collect data and will break functionality on sites that don’t have to be broken if they would have taken a longer, more focused and sophisticated approach to privacy,” Bennett Cyphers, a technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff, told Gizmodo.

To this end, perhaps the jokes Google engineers write about The Simpsons have an opinion. Of course Guy Incognito may not have the better, or even what would be called, a partially good disguise, but it’s still technically a disguise, right?

Well, a federal court in California will have an answer to that soon enough.

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