Google’s definition of ‘private’ is slowly coming to light thanks to a $5B class action lawsuit and recent Congressional hearings. There seems to be some emails and second hand accounts supporting the assertion that Google executives were well aware of how the public might react if they found out that Google and other sites could still track user searches, URL’s and actions while in ‘Incognito mode’. Google said, ‘Incognito mode in Chrome gives you the choice to browse the internet without your activity being saved to your browser or device. As we clearly state each time you open a new incognito tab, websites might be able to collect information about your browsing activity during your session.’ Millions of PornHub visitors just flinched. The mode does not stop Google Analytics or the sites you visit from gathering information about your online activities and associating that information with your online identities. So what could that mean for prosecutors or aggressive plaintiffs?

A clever bad actor could use private mode to keep their browsing history and cookies off their phone and laptop. However, as this article points out, it will not keep those device IP addresses from being captured on network traffic logs or on the sites visited. A clever subpoena or discovery request narrowly focused on the common IP addresses used by a custodian’s devices might turn up a list of those sites. Logs tend to be rewritten quickly, but we all know that valuable user data is kept forever by most commercial sites. Hence a well-crafted third party subpoena might dig up confirmation of internet sites visited or even search terms. This is all conjecture, but knowing that the data may still exist opens doors. So if you want to be truly anonymous online, you must browse in private mode through a VPN (hides your IP). As good as some AI has gotten, I would not bet that some systems might be able to derive a regular user’s identity based on their actions or language. Privacy is dead. And as Stephen E Arnold so eloquently said, ‘The Googley don’t make mistakes with words.’



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