Tech giant Google faces a hefty $5 billion class action US Lawsuit over Incognito tracking. File picture: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Tech giant Google faces a hefty $5 billion class action US Lawsuit over Incognito tracking. File picture: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Google slammed with $5bn lawsuit as Incognito mode detection still works in Chrome

By Yasmine Jacobs Time of article published Jun 5, 2020

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Tech giant Google faces a hefty $5 billion class action US Lawsuit over Incognito tracking. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in a San Jose federal court.

This is after reports that websites are still capable of detecting when a visitor is using Chrome's incognito (private browsing) mode, despite Google's efforts to stop the practice.

The lawsuit accuses Google of tracking millions of users even when they use browsers in "private" or "incognito" mode. It states that the company collects user information, including what is viewed online and where the viewing takes place. 

It is alleged that Google is able to do this through the use of Google Ad Manager, Google Analytics and other plug-ins and apps. The complaint states it is likely that millions of users have been tracked while in "private" mode since June 1, 2016.

There are various reasons why website operators like to block incognito mode users.

Users may utilise incognito mode to bypass content paywalls and various content filters/limiters. Current incognito modes also have aggressive anti-tracking features that block websites from tracking and fully monetizing their traffic.

These result in direct financial losses to websites. Due to this, scripts that detect incognito modes have become increasingly popular in recent years.

In early 2019, Google made a move to stop such scripts. It released Chrome 76 in July 2019. Chrome 79 included an update that blocked websites from using the FileSystem API to detect if a user was using Chrome's normal browsing mode or its incognito mode.

With Chrome 76, Google activated the FileSystem API for incognito mode windows making previous detection scripts useless. 

However, this update wasn't foolproof. It was discovered that Google didn't fully activate the FileSystem API and merely set up a hard limit to the amount of storage space that incognito mode windows could access.

Google vowed in August 2019 to fix the bypass and block incognito mode detections.

However, nine months later, it is still possible to detect incognito mode in Chrome, and all the other Chromium-based browsers, such as Edge, Opera, Vivaldi, and Brave, all of which share the core of Chrome's codebase.

What does it mean to browse privately?

Incognito mode prevents others who pick up the device from seeing your browser history. In this mode, Chrome itself does not save your browser history, nor any data you type into web forms. 

Google Chrome will not sync your private browsing history across your account. However, it is worth noting that Chrome will remember cookies, site data, and permissions granted while you’re browsing, but this information is deleted upon closing the incognito tab. 

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