Google has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit over its tracking of user activity in Chrome’s Incognito browsing mode. As part of the settlement, Google will pay $100 million and update the Incognito mode disclaimer to more clearly state that user activity may still be visible to websites and Google.
Lawsuit Alleged Privacy Violations
The lawsuit originated in 2020 when three Chrome users accused Google of illegally invading their privacy by tracking their activity in Incognito mode.
Incognito mode is marketed as a way for users to browse the web privately without Chrome saving their browsing history, cookies, site data or information entered into forms.
However, the lawsuit alleged that Google still tracked users’ activity in Incognito sessions by:
- Using third-party cookies that allowed websites to recognize repeat visitors even in private sessions
- Collecting browsing data to personalize ads
- Retaining information input into forms
This was deemed deceptive as it defeated the purpose of using Incognito mode.
Google Settles for $100 Million, Denies Wrongdoing
To avoid further litigation, Google agreed to settle the lawsuit in January 2024 by:
- Paying out $100 million to be distributed among the 129 million members of the class action
- Updating the Incognito disclaimer to clarify it does not make users anonymous to websites or protect fully against Google tracking
However, Google denied any deliberate deception and maintained Incognito mode operates as intended to prevent browsing data being stored locally.
The updated disclaimer is already rolling out in the latest version of Chrome.
New Incognito Disclaimer More Transparent About Limitations
The previous Incognito mode disclaimer stated:
Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider or the websites you visit.
The updated message is more explicit about Google’s potential visibility:
When you use incognito tabs or windows, your activity might still be visible to:
- Websites you visit
- Your employer or school
- Your internet service provider
- Google (if you’re signed into Chrome or have Chrome Sync enabled)
While websites could always use tracking methods like cookies to recognize Incognito visitors, this makes it clearer that the same applies to Google if syncing is enabled.
Implications: Increased Scrutiny of Online Tracking
This case forms part of a wider backlash against covert user tracking by tech companies.
In 2021, a $5 billion class action was filed alleging Google unlawfully collected data on users browsing in private modes across its ecosystem of products and services:
- Google Search
- Google Maps
- Google Play Store
That lawsuit is still ongoing but could force all companies to strengthen their privacy protections around private browsing.
Apple also had to clarify that its “Private Relay” feature does not fully anonymize web activity after backlash.
Going forward, regulators will likely mandate stricter data collection consent requirements – especially for personalization/ads. There have even been calls enforceable rights to use the internet anonymously.
Google Still Committed to Incognito Despite Criticisms
Google maintains Incognito mode works as originally intended and the disclaimer update is for more transparency. A statement emphasized:
We will continue to improve Incognito mode and other privacy controls based on user feedback.
Table: Timeline of Key Events in Incognito Tracking Lawsuit
|Class action lawsuit filed over Incognito tracking
|$100 million settlement reached, Chrome disclaimer updated
|Separate $5 billion lawsuit filed over tracking across Google services
|2024 & Beyond
|Stricter regulations on online tracking expected
So while the controversy rumbles on, Google remains committed to providing a private browsing option and has not indicated any plans to remove or significantly limit Incognito mode at this time.
Outlook: Incognito Gets More Private, Slowly
Ultimately, incremental improvements to Incognito privacy are likely in response to mounting public and regulatory concern around surreptitious tracking.
Google is fighting the broader lawsuit around ecosystem-wide monitoring during private sessions so cannot yet make sweeping anonymization changes.
But continued pressure could eventually force all browsers to make private modes more opaque to external trackers or risk punitive measures for non-compliance.
This story will continue unfolding over months and years – with user attitudes and legislation trends determining how much more private Incognito users can expect their browsing to become. For now, the disclaimer change provides fuller transparency without fundamentally altering Incognito mode’s functionality.
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