Even Google employees scoff at it

The term “incognito mode” is controversial even within the Google group.image: shutterstock

In internal chats, Google employees apparently made fun of the misleading name “incognito mode”. This could now have a costly aftermath.

17.10.2022, 17:1917.10.2022, 17:40

Anna Von Stefenelli /

When you open the incognito mode in the Chrome browser, you want to protect your privacy at least a little and prevent others from seeing your browsing history. After all, the name suggests that you can navigate more safely with it.

Most people are well aware that incognito mode doesn’t really protect their own data. An internal chat by Google employees has now become public, mocking the feature. This allows a look behind the scenes – and shows how ineffective the incognito mode really is.

Does Google care about privacy?
Class action lawsuit against tech giants

Now Google may even have to answer for it legally. There is a lawsuit for damages in the billions. In the United States, the class action against parent company Alphabet Inc. currently underway, which claims to secretly collect large amounts of user data but pretends to be private.

In the course of the lawsuit, among other things, an internal chat by Google employees was released, as reported by the Bloomberg news agency.

The chats indicate that even within the group there is a lot of criticism of the feature and its misleading name.

Google employees joke about the feature: “Guy Incognito”

The documents show that in an internal chat by Google engineers, for example, one person wrote: “We should stop calling it incognito and stop using a spy icon.” He referred to the icon of a spy disguised in sunglasses and a hat and the message “You’ve gone incognito mode” when users open a new tab. It falsely suggests to users that they are browsing the Internet anonymously.

Another employee joked and responded with a wiki link to a character from The Simpsons. This leads to “Guy Incognito”. He doubles as Homer Simpson in the series. “Regardless of the name, the Incognito icon should always be ‘Guy Incognito,'” the employee said, adding a pinch of salt: “It also accurately reflects the level of privacy it provides.”

This is what the incognito symbol should look like, a Google employee reportedly joked.

This is what the incognito symbol should look like, a Google employee reportedly joked.screenshot:

The timing of the chat shows how long the feature has been under criticism. The employee’s statement dates from 2018.

“Not really private”: Google was aware of the problem beforehand

Google boss Sundar Pichai continued development of the “incognito” feature in 2008. Build: AP/AP

An email that went directly to Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai should also be a burden to the group. He himself drove the development of the feature when the company launched its Chrome browser in 2008.

“We are limited in how much we can market incognito because he [der Modus] isn’t really private.”

Marketing Director Lorraine Twohill

In the said email, marketing director Lorraine Twohill wrote with an urgent request that Google urgently needs to make incognito mode truly private. “We are limited in how much we can market incognito because he [der Modus] is not really private. It requires very vague and evasive language, which is almost more harmful.”

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Twohill’s assessment of the inadequacy of incognito mode is remarkably candid. Especially when you consider that Google was already sued at that point.

compensation payments in
billions at stake

The honest way Google employees talked to each other internally about Chrome’s incognito mode may now fall on Google’s toes. This reduces the Group’s chances of winning the lawsuit.

A loss can be costly.

After all, it is about compensation payments in the billions. Tens of thousands of Chrome users have complained. US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers must now decide whether they will receive between $100 and $1,000 for the data breaches.

Google itself denies unfairness. “Privacy controls have long been built into our services, and we encourage our teams to continually discuss and review ideas to improve them,” company spokesman Jose Castaneda said in an email.

Due to tips: The group is not aware of any debt

Google argues in the court filings that while incognito mode does not make browsing invisible, users have given their consent for the company to track their data. “Incognito mode provides users with a private browsing experience, and we have been clear about how it works and what it does, whereas in this case the plaintiffs intentionally misrepresented what we said,” Castaneda said in the email .

In an incognito session, Chrome explicitly warns that web activities for visited websites, employers and Internet providers are still visible.

Chrome and other browsers like Firefox warn, but many don't seem to read the fine print.

Chrome and other browsers like Firefox warn, but many don’t seem to read the fine print.

Privacy from Google itself
apparently poorly protected

So far, only Google knows what it does with the data it collects when searching in incognito mode. “Some of this will come to light during the negotiations,” said Serge Egelman, research director of the Usable Security and Privacy Group at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Egelman said data about where incognito mode users go online, what they do on certain websites, and what ads they see can be used for conversion tracking, which can teach advertisers how users interact with ads. It’s also “probably valuable from a profiling perspective to sell targeted advertising.”

The complaining consumers argue that Google’s transparency regarding data collection is completely inadequate. In a court filing, they pointed to an internal suggestion by a Google Chrome product that leads to changing the saying on the incognito home screen to read “You are NOT protected from Google” instead of “You are protected against other people using this device ».

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