Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, is said to have deliberately concealed that the Incognito mode of the Chrome web browser collects data from users. Lorraine Twohill, head of marketing at Google, is said to have advised the CEO to avoid the term “private” because it could lead to misconceptions. Pichai disregarded his warning, wanting to prevent the issue from coming under a magnifying glass.
That writes the American news agency Reuters on the basis of new documents that have been submitted to the court.
Incognito mode is not the same as anonymous
If you use Google Chrome as your web browser and browse the web in Incognito mode, are you anonymous on the world wide web? Many think so: after all, incognito means ‘unrecognizable’ or ‘under a pseudonym’. In other words, not directly traceable back to the user.
In reality, Google knows all about whoever uses Incognito Mode. The search giant knows, among other things, which websites you visit, how long you stay there, what device you use, from which location you are online, and so on.
Incognito mode, on the other hand, does not store cookies and credentials. Furthermore, it does not track your searches and the sites you visit do not appear in your search history.
Uncertainty about Incognito Mode
Three Americans thought this was pure deception and decided to sue Google . Their lawyers wrote in the indictment that the search engine giant tracks and analyzes all internet activity of users, “regardless of the precautions consumers take to protect the privacy of their data”.
“Google cannot continue to secretly and unsolicitedly collect data from every American who has a computer or smartphone,” the law firm said in the indictment. The firm is demanding $5 billion in damages.
Google said it would “defend itself tooth and nail” against the allegations. “Incognito mode in Chrome gives users the choice to browse the web without their activity being saved to their browser or device. As we clearly state every time users open a new incognito tab, websites may be able to collect information about browsing activity during their session,” a spokesperson said about the lawsuit last year.
Pichai didn’t want Incognito mode to end up under a magnifying glass
New documents submitted as evidence to the court show that CEO Sundar Pichai was already aware of Incognito mode’s data collection practices in 2019. That year, head of marketing Lorraine Twohill warned the Google CEO not to label the Incognito mode of Google’s web browser as ‘private’. “That leads to misconceptions about the protection the mode provides,” he wrote in an email to Pichai. Google’s CEO decided not to act on this warning, fearing that Incognito mode would end up under a magnifying glass unnecessarily.
Google spokesman José Castañeda says the email exchange between Pichai and Twohill has been taken out of context and is being misinterpreted by prosecutors. He does not want to explain what exactly is wrong. He says teams within Google “routinely” discuss how to improve privacy settings in Google’s services.
Last month, Google Vice President Brian Rakowski, also known as the founder of Incognito mode, was subpoenaed. He said users can browse the web privately with Incognito mode, but what they expect “may not match” reality. He also testified that terms like “anonymous” and “invisible” “could be super helpful” in explaining what Incognito mode does. Google’s lawyers rejected Rakowski’s testimony.
European Commission is also investigating Google’s data collection practices
Google’s data collection practices are under fire not only in the US, but also in Europe. The European Commission has launched two investigations into the search giant. First of all, the Commission wants to know how the advertising industry works and what technology is involved in it. The second study examines how Google collects and processes data, and how it earns money from it. “The European Commission is concerned about how Google collects, accesses, processes and uses data to monetize,” the Commission said.
Google says it will cooperate fully with the investigations of the European Commission. “We compete with many others in the industry, giving people control over how their information is used to personalize ads and limiting the sharing of personal data to protect people’s privacy,” a spokesperson said early this year.
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