It turns out even Google’s own workforce isn’t sold on the company’s claims around Incognito mode’s privacy protections.
Employees reportedly cracked jokes about the feature’s inept, and potentially misleading privacy protections in recent years, with one marketing officer reportedly directly emailing CEO Sundar Pichai, basically begging him to make the product actually live up to its name according to recent court documents viewed by Bloomberg. Those jokes and internal criticism comes amid multiple lawsuits questioning Google transparency around the feature.
In one email sent to Pichai, Google marketing chief Lorraine Twohill reportedly warned that the current customer confusion around Incognito mode was forcing the company to dance around using fuzzy and hedging language that ultimately risked degrading consumer trust.
“Make Incognito Mode truly private,” she wrote in the email. It’s worth noting that Twohill sent that email after multiple users filed a multi-billion dollar class action privacy lawsuit against Google for allegedly tracking users while using Incognito. Those users claim that supposedly surreptitious tracking amounts to privacy violations. The judge presiding over the lawsuit last week refused to let plaintiffs question Pichai in pre-trial proceedings despite the CEO’s connections in Google Chrome’s development and subsequent concerned emails regarding Incognito.
Let’s back up for a second. For some clarity, Google Chrome’s so-called Incognito browsing hides your search history from other people using your device but doesn’t actually prevent Google or its advertiser friends from logging and profiting off your search history. Critics of Incognito, like the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, and more recently Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argue Google’s branding and messaging around Incognito makes it appear much more privacy preserving than it actually is. Paxton, in particular, alleges the company’s representations about Incognito mode are “false, deceptive, and misleading.”
Google, for its part, vigorously denies those objections.
“Privacy controls have long been built into our services and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas to improve them,” a Google spokesperson said in an email to Gizmodo. “Incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience, and we’ve been clear about how it works and what it does whereas the plaintiffs in this case have purposely mischaracterized our statements.”
Google, according to court documents viewed by Bloomberg, also argues it’s common knowledge that Incognito mode does not offer full invisibility on the web and says users consent each time they use the service.
Meanwhile, additional court filings 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. The engineer reportedly cited publicly available research showing users didn’t really understand how the feature worked. Another employee flippantly responded by posting a wiki to the page for “Guy Incognito” from The Simpsons, who, other than a small mustache, looks identical to Homer Simpson. That low effort disguise, according to the employee, “accurately conveys the level of privacy it [Incognito] provides.”
A Google Chrome product lead reportedly even proposed altering the Incognito launch page to read “You are NOT protected from Google” as opposed to “You are protected from other people who use this device.” Needless to say, Google shitcanned that idea.
To Google’s credit, Chrome’s Incognito launch page does provide some important details on the features’ limitations but research shows those notes, some of which require clicking an additional “learn more tab” aren’t breaking through.
56.3% of participants in a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Leibniz University of Hanover, for instance, said they believed Incognito prevents Google from seeing their search history. It doesn’t. Another 37% thought Incognito could prevent their employers from tracking them which also isn’t accurate. In reality, private browsing mode, according to Nord VPN’s Daniel Markuson, “only blocks your own browser from recording your traffic. It doesn’t hide your IP.” Unlike VPNs that encrypt traffic, Markuson says Incognito simply erases browsing history and deletes cookies when users close a browser.
“Your ISP and employer, websites, search engines, governments and other third-party snoopers can still collect your data and track your IP address,” Markuson wrote.
“Google offers a pretty decent, dumb way to protect your privacy but it’s not very sophisticated and misses a lot of 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 more targeted and sophisticated privacy-protecting approach,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff technologist Bennett Cyphers previously told Gizmodo.
To that end maybe the joking Google engineers writing about The Simpson have a point. Sure, Guy Incognito might not have the best, or even what one would call, a particularly good disguise, but it’s still technically a disguise, right??
Well, a California Federal Court will have an answer to that soon enough.